“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
MLK’s dream of a loving, diverse world starts in your home, with your words and your actions.
By Laura Reagan-Porras, MS
My best friend in the second grade was Lela Jean. She was black. I was new to Mrs. Morris’ second grade class, and so was Lela Jean. We bonded over being new. The other girls had been together since kindergarten. To us, it seemed like they had insider information. Lela Jean and I leaned on each other. We hung out together at lunch and played together at recess every day. I spoke of her often at home at the dinner table. It became customary for my parents to ask, “What did Lela Jean and you do today?
One day there was a track and field competition at school. Our parents were invited to attend and participate. My dad came and so did Lela Jean’s dad. I introduced them and pointed to Lela Jean and said gladly, “This is Lela Jean!” Then we ran off to play together. On the drive home my dad said, “I didn’t know Lela Jean was black.” My dad grew up in the segregated south. There was a smile behind his comment. Part of him was proud, and part of him was uncomfortable. I was just confused. Something had changed in an instant. An adult awareness about race had tainted my child like wonder of it.
Regardless of your politics on the issues of the day, race is on the evening news. Our children are often exposed to very adult conversations about race. This reality may beg the question, how do I talk about race with my child? As with any issue, behaviorist tell us, the first rule of thumb about discussing race with children is to model the behavior you want.
1. Be a good race relations role model.
Demonstrate positive race relations in practical ways in your own life by demonstrating diversity. Ask yourself, do I have friends of other races? If most of your friends are from your own race and culture, you may want to consider opportunities for you and your child to interact with other races and cultures. Attend a different church on Sunday. Observe how they worship. Find something to appreciate about it and comment on it to your child.
You may find yourself asking, do I openly and verbally appreciate other races and cultures in front of my child? If you see a television program about a different culture, use the opportunity to discuss a different way of life and worldview. Find one thing you like about it and state it out loud.
2. Listen first. Don’t assume shared understandings about race.
Sociologist assert that children construct differences and similarities differently than adults. Children notice differences quite early developmentally but it may be for reasons that interest children and not as adults define the difference. A teacher noticed that six year old girls on a playground were not playing with one girl in particular, who was African American. The astute teacher listened first before intervening and found that the majority of the girls preferred to play with girls who wore their hair with ribbons instead of girls who didn’t use ribbons. The African American girl didn’t use ribbons in her hair. She was excluded from conversations and games. The girls were not excluding her because of race but because of ribbons. To adult eyes, the game looked racist but to the children controlling the game, it made sense. The teacher then noticed one girl sharing her ribbons with the African American girl. The teacher chose to intervene in that moment and praised the sharing behavior. She talked about inclusion.
3. Answer your child’s questions about race and culture in an age-appropriate way.
Alvin Poussaint, M.D, the psychiatric consultant states there are two critical development ages when race and culture questions are likely to occur. They are, ages six to eight years old and the teenage years. These stages are times when the child’s world is expanding and their values are forming or solidifying. Responding to a child’s questions at these stages in simple, honest terms is important.
When your seven-year-old child comes home and declares a classmate has an Asian mom and a black dad and says, “Isn’t that weird? You may choose to say, “Not weird, just different from us.” When your teen asks what you think about his school renaming their sports teams because Native Americans find “Redskins” to be offensive, you can use it as an opportunity to discuss your own believes about racial slurs while demonstrating respect that others might not see it the same way.
Laura Reagan-Porras, MS is a clinical sociologist and a freelance writer. She can be reached for questions, comments and parent coaching services at www.heart2heartparents.com.