As much as we would like to be a color-blind, gender-blind, age-blind society, we aren't. So don't ignore the issues of racism and sexism (and ageism and other prejudices) just because they make you uncomfortable. Your toddler needs your help to resist biases and prejudice.
The best way to defeat the influence of bias is to talk about it with your toddler or preschooler. Listen to your child's questions and comments about others—and about himself—and answer them as directly and as well as you can.
If you show your child that you welcome open discussions about race and gender and age and physical abilities, you can expect him to start asking some tough questions:
In teaching your child respect and tolerance for different people, start with concepts they'll understand. African American? Latino? No. Your toddler doesn't understand these adult labels. Instead, start by talking about gender and skin color—the real color: not black and white, but brown, tan, beige, and pink. Then you can talk about the shape of eyes, the color and texture of hair, and other obvious differences.
- Why is Nana in a wheelchair all the time?
- Why is my skin so dark?
- If she takes a bath, will her skin get pink like mine?
- Why am I called white? My skin is pink.
- Why am I called black? My skin is brown.
- Why does Adriana sound so funny when she talks?
- Why don't I have a penis?
When your child brings up such questions, be straightforward and direct. Here are some pointers on how to answer tough questions:
- Listen carefully to the question, not only so that you will hear exactly what your child wants to know, but also so that you can gauge his feelings about the question—and about your answer.
- Answer briefly, directly, and matter-of-factly.
- If you can't answer (either because you don't know or you're feeling thrown by the question), tell him that you need a little time either to think or to find out the answer. If you do put it off, however, make it a point to follow through.
- Don't ignore, evade, sidestep, or change the subject when your child asks about differences or biases.
- Do not chastise your child for asking the question, even if it seems inappropriate or embarrassing (to you). It's never bad for your child to ask about what he's observed. Besides, if you give your child the idea that it isn't polite to discuss these differences, then you won't have the opportunity to correct any misconceptions he may have formed.
- In any discussion of race or gender or other differences, you'll need to begin by acknowledging difference(s). Your child notices differences in gender, skin color, physical abilities, and accent, so you can't just pretend they don't exist. But at the same time, help your child notice the similarities: Okay, her skin is not the same color as yours, but she's your age. You both like to swing on the swings, you both like peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, you both have a baby brother. Help your child make connections and then point out that skin color really doesn't matter all that much, does it?
When you respond to your child's questions about differences, try to provide answers that are as simple and accurate as possible. Some examples:
- Nana needs a wheelchair because her legs are no longer strong enough to hold her up when she tries to walk. The wheelchair helps her get around.
- Your skin is dark because Mommy's skin and Daddy's skin are both dark brown.
- No, her skin color won't come off. Skin color is not dirt; it does not wash away. Skin color is like the different colors of your shirts. When I throw your red shirt and your blue shirt in the wash, they still come out red and blue. The color doesn't wash away.
- People are called white or black even though they have many different skin colors. But you're right, neither is truly white or black.
- Adriana doesn't sound funny, she just sounds different. You might hurt her feelings if you say she sounds funny. She and her family came from Guatemala. She still speaks Spanish at home and speaks English as her second language. Do you think you could learn two languages?
- You don't have a penis because you don't need a penis. You have a vulva. All girls and women have vulvas. Boys and men have penises.
These kinds of simple but direct answers advance your child's understanding of difference without imposing value judgments on those differences.