“I don’t like Adam because he has black skin.” When Erin Devine* heard her four-year-old son, Ewan*, utter these words about a classmate, she was mortified. Her first thought? My child’s a racist! She wondered what could have sparked such a comment. Though Devine and her family are Caucasian, they live in multicultural Toronto, and Ewan had been in daycare with kids of various backgrounds for years. Race was never an issue—or so Devine thought.
“One day after that incident, we were sitting around talking about people and Ewan asked, ‘Do they have white skin or black skin?’ We said, ‘It doesn’t matter—we’re all the same inside,’” recalls Devine. But when Ewan declared he was no longer a fan of his NHL idol, the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban, because he’s Black, Devine really started to worry. “He had been obsessed with P.K. since age two. Suddenly, he refused to wear his P.K. jersey or sleep with his P.K. doll.”
Ewan’s behaviour is actually quite normal. “Beginning at age three, kids become what I like to call amateur sociologists,” says Yarrow Dunham, director of the Social Cognitive Development Lab at Yale University, which explores how young children navigate the social world. “They’re realizing that people can be divided into kinds. They begin to categorize people, such as bad guys and good guys. They’ll notice who’s wearing a particular sports team’s jersey, or who has curly hair. Not surprisingly, ethnic categories come into play as well.”
Dunham has conducted studies in which children are divided into two groups: those wearing red shirts and those in blue. “Kids expressed more liking for kids in their own group,” says Dunham. “It’s not because the red group is better, but simply because there’s a tendency to like your own kind more. It’s the same as if you realize you share a birthday with someone or come from the same hometown. That’s what’s going on with race, too. Children in the three to five age range don’t know the complicated history of race. They’re just thinking: I’m going to like my own group more.”
Of course, it’s parents’ responsibility to teach kids not to judge people by their skin colour. Karen Mock is an educational psychologist and human rights consultant based in Toronto. She suggests providing dolls of varying shades and picture books that illustrate diversity. “The environment in which a child is raised makes a huge difference to them developing inclusive attitudes,” she says. Mock also encourages parents, when they’re reading or watching TV, to point out the positive: “He’s Chinese, he’s Black, and he’s white. Look at that—they’re all having fun together.”
In instances like Devine’s, it’s important not to overreact. And while it’s tempting to say, “We’re all the same—we’re all human,” try digging deeper. In Devine’s case, Mock recommends saying something along the lines of, “It sounds like you don’t want to play with Adam because of his skin colour.” The child will likely agree, at which point Devine should say, “I don’t feel like that’s a very good reason not to play with somebody.” That’s when a child is likely to offer more details, such as, “Well, he pulled my hair.” This type of active listening opens up the dialogue and gets to the real source of the problem.
Kids’ explanations for why they like or don’t like something are often idiosyncratic. “They’re looking for a narrative, such as skin colour, that’s easier to articulate than, say, this person bothers me by getting into my personal space,” says Dunham. Children, he says, will probably not have one moment where they think: “Aha! Treat everyone the same.” But talking about race openly gets that process going and, as parents, we can help steer it in the right direction.
Try this Looking for a way to talk about race with your preschooler? Try baking. Crack open a white egg and then a brown egg, and show your kid how they’re the same inside. Or you can present your child with two gifts—one wrapped in ribbons and glitter, another in crinkled newspaper. Fill the sparkly one with dirt and the other with a shiny bracelet. Then get the conversation going: “Can you really judge what’s inside by the outside?”
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our April 2016 issue, titled "Is my kid a racist?", pg. 48.