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It’s been a difficult, often painful week in the United States. Not for the first or last time, our national tension around race has come to a head, setting off events we still don’t know the outcome of. It can be hard to know what to do as a parent, especially if your child is under 2. You might be processing your own feelings, or you might worry about how to protect your baby. You might feel that your little one is simply too little -- can’t they learn about race when they’re older?
Yes, it’s too early to talk about George Floyd, or more generally, America’s long and fraught history of racism. But it’s not too early to talk about race. Studies show that by 6 months, babies begin to notice differences in skin color and hair textures, and prefer to look at people of their own race; one study found this preference in babies as young as 3 months.
Yet few families start talking about race early and often, especially those who are less likely to feel its effects. Many parents fear that talking about it will somehow bring racism into their home, or that they’ll say the wrong thing -- that it’s better not to bring it up at all. It’s an understandable fear, but it’s better to set a positive message about race from the start. That way you can be sure they’ll learn from you, and not from the biases they see in the world around them.
Okay, so: how?
Start With Visuals
If you’re still social distancing (and you probably should be!), begin with your home: buy books, toys, art, and media that showcase a wide variety of people and cultures. In particular, look for materials that feature people of color as a part of everyday life -- not just in exotic or historical settings.
Once it’s safe to stop social distancing, make sure your baby gets real-life exposure to many kinds of people. Try to find playgrounds or playgroups with a diverse mix of families. Take your baby to family-friendly cultural events. If your own neighborhood isn’t especially diverse, visit different areas to give your baby a positive experience of other cultures.
Talk about differences in general. Race isn’t the only way people are different, and focusing too much on it alone probably won’t send the right message. Teach your child that we all have similarities and differences: things that bring us together and things that make us special. Isn’t it great that we’re not all exactly the same?
Your baby learns everything from you, so take a moment to think about your own relationship with race, without guilt or judgement. How do you interact with people from different races? If you don’t have a diverse social network, how can you develop one? What assumptions do you have about people of different races? It’s okay if the answers to these questions aren’t “perfect.” The goal isn’t perfection! The goal is challenging yourself to become a more socially-conscious person -- so you can teach your baby how to do the same thing.
It may feel awkward and uncomfortable to start talking about race -- but as with any routine, the more you do it, the more natural it will become. More importantly, it will teach your child important values right from the get-go, and prepare you both for the day you have to start teaching much more difficult lessons.
AND… If you need some inspiration to get started, check out some of the books below:
Babies LOVE to look at pictures of babies, and these three books deliver! Each features babies of all races and ethnicities, with slightly different focuses: Global Babies showcases different world cultures, My Face Book is full of feeling words, and Two Eyes… teaches all about (no surprise) facial features.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes This book by Mem Fox also lets babies look at babies -- this time illustrated ones -- and notice how similar they are, even when they’re also different.
Baby Dance Set to “Hush Little Baby,” this sweet, simple little rhyming book challenges stereotypes about fathers of color and their babies.
The Snowy Day This book is a classic for a reason, and a must-have on any parent’s shelf.
Happy In Our Skin A lovely story about a diverse city neighborhood and the many different kinds of families that live in it.