Discussing race with a 3-year-old

08/22/2011 at 8:38 pm | Posted in Small Fry | 20 Comments
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Lily threw me for a giant loop yesterday.

In the middle of one of our rambling conversations about friends and Brobee and puzzles and boogers, she says, plain as day, “I don’t like dark ladies and dark guys.”

My heart plummeted into my stomach. Oh no, I thought. My kid is a racist.

My first instinct was to scold her. But then, I remembered: she’s only three. She’s probably repeating something she heard outside our home. Regardless of the source of her statement, I realized this: it’s my job to teach her otherwise.

Don’t blow this, Suzanne.

So I told her that all people are equal, and that the color of your skin doesn’t matter. That many of her favorite people are “dark,” including classmates, friends, teachers and neighbors. That her hero, Dora, has brown skin. That, if a new kid came to school with purple skin and green hair, we would treat him with the same love and respect as anyone else. We talked about eye color, hair color, size. How every single person on this planet is unique. And Marc and I showed her how our skin is different colors.

I think she got it. I hope she got it.

The whole thing really got my mind spinning. I haven’t been able to stop thinking (worrying) about it today.

I’m curious. Has this happened to you? How did you handle it? Do you have any suggestions for children’s books that focus on equality, different cultures, understanding race?



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  1. Don’t worry. You did the right thing by talking to her calmly about culture differences. Last year or so my 4 year old grandson, who shall be nameless, told me that Pres. Obama looked like “Curious George” from TV fame that he was watching. After almost choking to death, I tried to do the same talk you did. Kids are kids and don’t have a brain filter at their young ages. He also tells me that I have wrinkles on my face and I am old….so there you go.

    • Ha! We can always count on kids for honest advice about our appearance, huh? Lily has started to remark on my “tired” eyes. πŸ™‚

  2. Yes! Ian threw out one day that he didn’t like the skin color of the brown boy in his class. I was shocked and wondered where it came from. We talked about how everyone is unique and that is what makes them special. I asked him if it would hurt his feelings if his classmate told him he didn’t like blue eyed boys. Not too long after our start to opening the door to talking about different cultures/races his school did a week of lessons on cultural differences. It was perfect timing.

  3. It sounds like you handled it beautifully. Honestly? You are probably right… she had no idea what she was saying and unfortunately she probably heard it from another child. You did the right thing explaining that there are differences and everyone is to be loved & treated the same. Great job momma!

  4. My kids are too young for statements like that yet, but I remember the first time I had a classmate who was black (I lived in a very very white community until we moved to California when I was 7). I was scared of him, and probably said something very similar to Lily at some point. But no one ever explained it to me – they just told me it was rude to say things like that and I continued to be sort of nervous around him which made school a lot less fun. I think you did exactly the right thing and handled it like a total pro.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I had a similar experience … but in a small Southern town and a Catholic school. Say no more, right? College was where my horizons really expanded. Thank goodness.

  5. My son said the same thing when he was 3. I explained when something is different we sometimes feel a little scared of it, like when I show him a new veggie, but that if we decide if we like or don’t like people because of their appearance we will miss out on some really great friends.

    I think you handled it perfectly and will probably find yourself giving her the same talk several times until she is mature enough to really understand.

    The book didn’t give my son an aha moment but I like What a Wonderful World. It’s Louis Armstrong’s song in childrens book form.

    • Thank you for the book recommendation! I’ll definitely check it out. And, thanks also for the Facebook “like.” πŸ™‚

  6. I think you handled it perfectly.

  7. I think you handled it wonderfully! Jackson threw us for a similar loop when eating out a restaurant a few months ago, only it was in regards to a very obese woman. We explained it similarly, and just like you used examples from his favorite PBS and Nick Jr. shows to illustrate that people are different, but all the same on the inside. Good work Suzanne!

    • Thanks, Daniel! We’ve only dealt with staring up until this point … but I imagine she’ll start asking soon about people who look different than her. Hope all is well with you guys!

  8. Have you read Nurture Shock? Theres a chapter about how we do kids s disservice by pretending to be “colorblind.” they can see the colors of skin. They just don’t attach judgement and history to itinerary adults do. Worth reading. And I think you handled it great.

  9. omg i never considered this question. my son is only 17 months though. good save!

  10. Yeah, Catie just moved up to a new daycare class and she said that she doesn’t like her new (African-American) teacher as much as her previous (white) teacher, because, “Miss M had blonde hair like me.” I wasn’t really sure if she meant it in a racial way, or if it was just something about her previous teacher that she could relate to. I reminded her of all the other people she loves (like me, her aunt, etc.) who don’t have blonde hair like she does, and it doesn’t change how much she loves them. We talked about how everybody is different, and that’s what makes the world such a cool place, because it would be really boring if everybody looked the same.

    I think you handled it really well. The main thing is to not overreact. At this age, the more nonchalant you are, the more easily they’ll accept the information from you.

  11. My niece, around 3 years old, didn’t want “dark ballerina” figurines on her birthday cake. She picked them out and threw them to the side, leaving the obviously different “light ballerinas” on the table. We all looked at each other and just stared. My sis had a similar, gentle talk with her about celebrating differences & how her preschool teacher’s aide was dark skinned and a wonderful person. It seemed to pass with real people, but for some reason she really doesn’t like the dark ballerina figurines. We chalk it up to poor paint job….

  12. oh also there’s a great children’s book called “Shades of Black” if you’re looking for a good read on her level πŸ™‚

  13. my daughter is only 18 months, so we haven’t crossed this bridge yet. but if I may offer: one of the easiest ways to normalize the differences in people may be to incorporate it into her regular activities, such as the different color ballerinas mentioned earlier (even if it didn’t go over so well the first time!). one of the things that has been important to us is to have books in her library that have people of color as main characters, such as Corduroy and The Snowy Day. they don’t discuss race at all, but are about a girl who fall in love with a teddy bear, and what adventures a kid can have on a snowy day – all things that a little person can relate to. perhaps it will help with the “hey, that kid is just like me” factor.

    • You are so right. We have those books and several others … but I need to pay more attention to her toy collection, TV programming, etc. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tia!

  14. It is very important to openly discuss race. If it becomes a taboo subject that is when they are afraid to openly discuss it with you. I think you handled it well.
    I like the snowy day book.
    Here are a few we have in our bookshelf:
    Family Book by Todd Parr
    Who’s in a Family
    I also thought that Land Before Time movies helped to illustrate how families can look different and friends look different (littlefoot is with granparents, sara is with her dad, etc.)
    Great article:

  15. hmm, i have certainly had multi cultural objects, toys, books and so forth for all my kids lives. my daughter definitely had issues with a teacher with a different skin color and then it transferred to other situations. I know it wasn’t something other kids said to her. One thing is I think the circumstances in which she has this teacher are a bit hard on my daughter: large room with crazy kid behavior, huge acoustics and the teacher has a loud voice. The other thing is that there is a big visual difference.
    Yes, after I almost choked as well I tried to gently explain to my daughter. I think time and a bit of maturity has been the thing that did it though. I do wonder if it is the city we live. When i grew up people of different races mingled every day and in more even numbers. The city we live in is certainly more segregated in who you see, where and what type of interactions you have. It is almost like you have to purposely seek out racial integration.
    Like most other kid things, once you figure out a good plan of action they will have moved on to something else!

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