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Talking to toddlers about race and tolerance

Trista Schroeder and her daughter, Luli, 3, sit outside their home on Monday afternoon. Schroeder adopted Luli at birth in Ethiopia.
Trista Schroeder and her daughter, Luli, 3, sit outside their home on Monday afternoon. Schroeder adopted Luli at birth in Ethiopia.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Heather Juergensen was raised in an all-black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Growing up her first boyfriend was black, her best friend was black. When her 4-year-old daughter, Sophie, declared one day that she didn’t like a TV character because he was “brown,” she was horrified.

Juergensen had never talked about issues of race or difference with Sophie. Her first reaction was that Sophie was making a “purely aesthetic” statement because she was surely too young to understand the complexities of race. “She likes pink better than blue” says Juergensen in her Studio City home, “and she’s white,” so Juergensen assumed Sophie was just displaying an in-group preference. 

One year later, when Sophie was five, Juergensen says she pointed to a black person in a book and said “I don’t like this one, he’s too dark.” At this point Juergensen, mortified, sat her daughter down for a conversation about not judging others based on skin color.

“And that was the first I realized that children develop ideas about race beyond what you as a parent say about race or do about race,” she said.

What happened to Juergensen is common, said Ashley Merryman, who explored the phenomenon of why white parents don’t talk about race with their small children for the book Nurture Shock.

“What I hear from a bunch of parents is that they didn’t think it was an issue until suddenly their child burst out with what they thought was a completely socially inappropriate remark, and they hurt the other person’s feeling, and huge drama ensues,” she said.
Merryman posits that parents are “afraid of saying the wrong thing."

The trouble with that approach is that it leaves very young children to figure it out for themselves said veteran educator Louise Derman Sparks.

"The reality, which is backed up by many years of research, is that babies, even in their first year of life are noticing differences," she said. "That’s how children learn.”

Sparks, who is white and adopted black sons, said it's imperative for famlies to have conversations about race when children are very young. A retired college professor, she has written volumes of "anti-bias" curriculum for preschoolers. She said it's “normal and fine” for kids to notice difference but that adults must help them understand that differences don’t make some people better than others. Those teachings help children learn “say no to prejudice,” according to Sparks. 

She said children pick up on messages, such as Thanksgiving greeting cards with stereotypes of Native Americans. They also notice when the race of those in positions of power, like a preschool director or pediatrician, is different from that of the school custodian. Children become sensitive to status as young as four, she said. 

Infant Mental Health specialist Barbara Stroud says parents should be careful how they talk to their children about comments they make about race. When children are scolded by adults for saying something they might not know is wrong, “there is an emotional response of embarrassment or disappointment or sometimes shame,” she said. As a result, they will not have the capacity to understand what they said or did was wrong.

According to Sparks,  a conversation or play-activity can help children use the moment of the hurtful comment or action to learn why it was wrong.

“We need to give honest answers in simple language," she said. "If it makes us uncomfortable to answer those questions we need to work out being uncomfortable becuse when we’re uncomfortable, even if we say the right words, we’re also communicating to our children that there’s something wrong.”

Sparks advises that parents have to seek out opportunities to teach kids about how we are the same and different and equal.  She advises parents to counter stereotypes and cues given off by a segregated environment that subtly reinforces that “white-is-best.” 

Trista Schroeder actively talks to her adopted Ethiopian daughter Luli about race. Luli is three and a half. Once in ballet class, two white girls refused to hold her hand because she's black. The mother of one of girls was mortified and told Schroeder she had never talked about race with her daughter. In the radio feature, Schroeder explains how she navigated this difficult situation. 

Social science research has found that while white parents rarely talk about race with children, parents of color and mixed families often do. In a survey conducted by the Journal of Marriage and Family white parents of kindergartners reported overwhelmingly that they had never talked to their kids about race, while the vast majority the minorities had, according to Merryman. 

A very unscientific poll of parents belonging to the popular L.A. listserv Booby Brigade confirmed the experts' point of view. White parents still feel uncomfortable talking about race while parents of color said they routinely talk about issues of race and have books with diverse characters and plenty of dolls of color. Families of mixed race said they also routinely talk about issues of race because they are constantly confronted with it.