Parents, teachers, and educators. We’ve all experienced it!
“Why is that man’s skin so dark?”
“I don’t want to play with her; she looks different.”
It’s important to address these questions and situations.
Let’s bust some of the myths & misconceptions!
Children are interested in complex topics from a young age
Many adults believe that children don’t see colour, so we shouldn’t be having these sensitive conversations from a young age. In addition, they think that talking about skin colour with young children may contribute to creating issues that don’t actually exist.
Furthermore, some think that by not talking to children about skin colour and race, children will grow up “colour blind” and, therefore, won’t become racist.
“Children are capable of thinking about all sorts of complex topics at a very young age,” says Jessica Sullivan, the co-author of a study exploring perceptions around the best age to have conversations with children about race, published by the American Psychological Association. “Even if adults don't talk to kids about race, children will work to make sense of their world and will come up with their own ideas, which may be inaccurate or detrimental.”
If we don’t have honest conversations about race or if we dismiss children when they bring up someone’s skin colour, aren’t we missing out on a perfect opportunity to openly discuss and work towards combatting racism from an early age?
Staying silent or telling a child to keep quiet is a strong message. If children hear nothing about race or skin colour (especially when they question it), the message we give them is that there is something taboo about that topic. Indirectly, we may contribute to them making negative assumptions and associations around differences.
Of course children see colour! Just the same way they are able to see and recognise the colours in their crayon pack or the colours of the rainbow from as early as the age of three.
Research shows that children are not born racist or prejudiced but may start demonstrating prejudice in their attitudes and behaviour as young as three years of age, as they start to navigate their social world and start noticing difference (Patterson & Bigler, 2006).
Research also indicates that the earlier these conversations start with children, the better (Katz, 2003). Although there is no ‘one time fits all’ for every child, we recommend that these conversations start from preschool age. If children are old enough to notice difference and ask questions about it, they are old enough to start having age-appropriate conversations about skin colour and race.
So yes! We should be talking to children about skin colour. Children’s curiosity about differences can provide useful opportunities to discuss culture and race and enable us to work towards removing bias, prejudice and racist behaviours in children from an early age. If we want to create accepting, non-racist future adults, there is no better place to start than with the children.
How do we respond when children unexpectedly bring up skin colour? Our tips & strategies:
Don’t be embarrassed, and don’t avoid or ignore such comments. It’s better to have this uncomfortable conversation than not to have it at all.
Act immediately because immediate action gives the child a better understanding of your response. It is also a good opportunity to have this important conversation before other people become involved and express their views when you are not present.
Once you start this important conversation, keep the conversation going! Then, you have the perfect opportunity to gently lay the foundation of the child’s worldview.
Use simple, age-appropriate language. Normalise the concept that people come in all skin colour shades and appearances. Just like we have different hair and eye colours, we also have different skin colours, but we’re all the same inside. Extend on this by looking at the similarities and differences in skin colour among family members and friends. Complement this with ongoing, practical experiences. Supporting children to embrace and celebrate diversity is an ongoing journey.
Choose and use materials, including books, posters, puzzles, films and dolls representing people with diverse skin colours. Also, incorporate art/craft material in different skin-toned colours (e.g. play dough, paints, crayons, paper).
Openly discuss, clarify, and further extend on activities that embrace important concepts such as race, culture, diversity, anti-bias, empathy, belonging, inclusion and community.
Be the best role model that you can be. Always be mindful of modelling respectful, inclusive behaviour. Children learn through observing adult behaviours. Be conscious of your words and actions when interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds.
Next time you hear a child curiously ask about differences in skin colour, we hope you see this as an important, non-confronting, teachable moment!
Australian Human Rights Commission: Building belonging: A toolkit for early childhood educators on cultural diversity and responding to prejudice
- I’m Australian Too – Mem Fox
- We Are All Welcome – Alexandra Penfold, Suzanne Kaufman
- Happy In Our Skin – Fran Manushkin, Lauren Tobia
- Shades of People –Shelley Rotner, Sheila M Ketty
- Every Shade Of Smile - Nicole M. Gray
- All Kinds of People – Shelley Rotner, Sheila M Ketty
- What If We Were All The Same? - C.M Harris
- All The Colours Of The Earth - Sheila Hamanaka
- Peg People Of The World
- Skin Toned Multicultural Faces & People Cut Outs
- Skin Toned Pencils
The above books can be found in the Diversity Kids shop and further information can be found on this topic via their Cultural Inclusion Channel Facebook group.
Professional development relating to this topic:
Meni Tsambouniaris is one of 8 speakers who will join us on the day.
Hear what Meni has to say about Elevate
Derman-Sparks, L (1992), "The Anti Bias Curriculum. Tools for empowering young children." Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Patterson, M. M., & Bigler, R. S. (2006). Preschool children’s attention to environmental messages about groups: Social categorization and the origins of intergroup bias. Child Development, 77, 847–860
Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do they begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897–909
Meni has worked in the early childhood education sector for 35 years. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology (UNSW) and has worked in various multicultural children’s services positions under the Commonwealth Inclusion Support strategy, including co-ordinating Sups Programs and managing the NSW Bicultural Support Program. She is an early childhood author, resource developer and trainer on cultural inclusion. In addition, Meni is a CALD representative, adviser and consultant on various platforms.
Meni currently co-manages a multicultural consultancy program called Diversity Kids and has a strong passion for cultural inclusive practice, bilingualism, and embedding cultural perspectives in education and care settings.