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A Child’s Recognition of Race

teaching children about race

7021146_sMy youngest child, Eli, is four. He’s very sharp and always curious. He wants to learn everything. He recently started asking questions such as ‘Why do some people have different color skin?” or “Why do her eyes look different than mine?” When one of these questions comes up we try to use it as a learning experience about celebrating how we are all different while also teaching him about countries, culture and heritage. But, as all parents know, while a child may absorb what you teach them they don’t always repeat it in the same adult manner.

My husband, Dan, took Eli out for lunch one day. As they were sitting at the table eating, a young man and his friend came in and sat at the next table over. The young man was Asian and, as Eli saw him, he shouted “Look! A Chinese man!”. Dan almost choked on his hot dog. He glanced at the young man and it was obvious that he’d overheard. The entire restaurant had overheard. Dan felt a helpless gap of time where he was completely lost as to what he should say or do next. Dan realized that Eli was just excited because we’d been learning about China at home, but no one else knew that. The man may not have even been Chinese. He may have been Japanese, Korean or of other Asian heritage. But, Eli tapped into a word he was recently familiar with – just as a child who says ‘That apple is a circle’ even though it’s technically not.

But how do you explain these things in a split second to a room full of people? 

Dan turned to Eli and, in a voice that ensured the young man could overhear, they had this conversation:

“Eli, that wasn’t polite.”
“Why? Because I yelled?”
“No, because people already know who they are and no one else needs to tell them.”

Eli said okay and went back to eating and the young man nodded at Dan and turned back to his friend.

I’m glad my husband was there and not me. I don’t think on my feet as well as he does and I have a feeling I would have blundered the whole thing by tripping over myself trying to apologize and then searching for how to explain to Eli that he should react differently. I don’t know how I would have accomplished all of that without making my son feel as if he did something ‘wrong’.

I struggle with the duty of teaching about race
without introducing the concept of racism.


As adults, it’s easy to have a conversation about race because we already understand racism. But, do I want to start that dialog with my children before they ask? Do I want to be the reason their little minds first realize there is hate in the world? It’s a thin line between fostering awareness and planting a seed too early. Sometimes, as a mother, I worry that I’m not providing the clarity needed there. This post is a prime example. I’ve had this story stewing in my brain for a few weeks now. I knew I wanted to share it, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. The same goes for handling it with my children.

We live in a world where so many cruel things are said that I find myself second guessing things.  As the world changes, so do the terms and exchanges that are acceptable. Not the words and thoughts we all know have no place in a civilized world, but the things that can sound completely different depending on who’s mouth they spring from. Take my son’s sentence for example “A Chinese man.” Coming from my son it was innocent. But we can all imagine a situation where it could be less than kind.

Bias runs rampant. Race, religion, sexual orientation, political opinion and even income brackets all continue to separate us at an alarming rate. Our world is progressing rapidly with technology, medicine, creativity and more; yet unfounded anger between people who are different continues to keep us with one foot in the past. I constantly struggle with why that is and how I can make a difference. I worry about not only what I say, but how and when I say it.

I worry because I want to be the very best example I can be for my children.

1 Comment

  1. This happened to me when we went to the Justin Bieber concert. There was a man with a turban on his head at the hotel we stayed at. Charlotte was SO EXCITED about it. She called him Chinese as well…I had to explain to her he was most likely not chinese but a great deal other things like Indian, Saudi, etc. and what turban was for. I try to just deal with as it comes. Race exists and it can be taught without racism for sure.

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