Teaching young children to read

Read a roundtable with its founders teaching young children to read, or see new stories in the Human Interest section. How white parents should talk to their young kids about race.

Last summer, my family moved from Brooklyn to a small town in the Hudson Valley. We love our new life, but one thing about the community is not so great: It’s predominantly white. What will it mean in the long run if my white children don’t see and befriend people who come from different racial backgrounds? To find out, I dug into research on the causes of racial bias and talked to developmental and social psychologists, race-relations researchers, and Africologists. The good news is that the answer seems to be yes—there are things I can do to keep my kids from harboring racial prejudice. Namely, I can talk to them about race. First, a caveat: I’m writing this article as a white parent with white kids living in a mostly white neighborhood.

I know that my experiences, perspectives, and considerations differ markedly from those of parents with different ethnic backgrounds living in different situations, and I also realize that I know nothing about the racial landscape that minority parents have to navigate with their kids. White parents seem very, very resistant to talking about race—even really liberal ones. In their book Nurture Shock, journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman told the story of Birgitte Vittrup Simpson, a University of Texas at Austin Ph. I’ve avoided talking about race with my kids mainly because I’ve thought that racial bias is learned by direct instruction and imitation—and that if I don’t talk about race or act in explicitly racist ways, my kids won’t pick up prejudices.

But over the past 15 years, research has supported a different idea: that children start assigning meaning to race at a very young age. Kids actively try to understand and construct rules about their environment. We don’t breathe it because we think it’s good for us. We breathe it because it’s the only air that’s available. Other aspects of psychology come into play to promote racial biases, too. Don’t you want to be the one to suggest to them—early on, before they do form those preconceptions—something positive rather than let them pick up something negative?

In her University of Texas dissertation, Simpson reported that the children of parents who actually did talk meaningfully with them about race had better racial attitudes at the end of the study than they did at the beginning. The kids whose parents glossed over the issue or didn’t discuss race did not improve. But how should white parents talk about race with their kids? But, generally speaking, be upfront and specific.

Stevenson, who develops strategies to help parents, teachers, and kids cope with racial conflict, also points out that when children say racially insensitive things, parents should take a moment to consider, before admonishing them, where they are coming from. Where did they hear it from? White parents can also make kids’ in-group biases work for them: Point out that even though Lily has darker skin, she, too, seems to really like playing with dolls. The more similarities young kids see between themselves and children of other races, the more they may embrace them. That said, for older kids, it may be smarter to encourage kids to embrace racial differences, rather than to downplay these differences. It may also help to broach the subject of our country’s racial history. In 2007, Rebecca Bigler, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a two-part study—the first among white 6-to-11-year-olds at a Midwestern summer school, and the second among black 6-to-11-year-olds.