Debates about racism and prejudice are not dead, as witnessed by many Americans’ apprehension with the election of Barack Obama and the incident involving a Harvard professor and Cambridge, Mass., police this summer.
This brings to question: How should parents address these difficult issues with their children?
Chris Crandall, professor of psychology at Kansas University, says children basically understand the concept of race by age 10, and they can be introduced to the concept as soon as preschool.
“If you want your kids to be alert to these situations, you shouldn’t wait because society doesn’t wait — society starts training right away,” Crandall says. “So if you care, waiting just turns it over to neighbors, friends, teachers, peers and television, and you may not want to let that happen.”
Crandall says parents should model proper racial behavior well before having the much-hyped chat about race. Parents should also avoid addressing the issue prematurely, he says. If their children are making cross-racial friends, a chat could enhance the perception of difference.
“The chat that you have is going to a very small part of all the training you give your kids in racial, ethnic religious identity, so the chat itself is just a little thing,” he says.
Amy Mason, Lawrence resident and mother of three children, says she has rarely brought up the issue of race with her children, ages 10, 9 and 4. Since she lives in a culturally diverse neighborhood and her children go to a multiethnic school, Mason’s children interact with children of different races daily and see no perceived difference.
“We don’t really talk about it,” she says. “Because they are growing up in it, it’s nothing to them.”
Crandall says chats are important, though, when addressing situations that arise at school or through the media. Instead of telling their children what they should think about the situation, like the Harvard professor incident, parents should listen to what the children think about it.
“I don’t encourage teaching to see your kids along racial lines, because there’s enough teaching of that already done,” Crandall says. “So the smartest thing to do is to sit down and have your kid tell you what he or she thinks about it. That’s going to be more illuminating, because my guess is that your kids have a lot of thoughts about race, ethnicity, religion and so on that are just so interesting to listen to.”
Mason, who grew up in a mostly white small town, says she has been surprised about her children’s responses pertaining to race on several occasions. She says she once asked her son where a family down the street — who wore ethnic garb from another country — were from, and he simply said Topeka.
“That was completely the right answer for him,” she says. “He was like, ‘No problem, mom — they’re from Topeka. What’s the big deal?’”
Crandall says parents need to ensure their children have a solid view on race before middle school — at which point children’s racial identities become more significant to them. The best way to do this is shaping the friendships children have by getting them involved in activities such as soccer, gymnastics or 4-H that encourage them to meet kids of other races outside of the classroom.