Monday, July 22, 2013

Kids Aren't Colorblind

"What color is he?" she asked?

I was changing J-man at a friend's house.  Her four year old daughter, eyes full of questions and wonder kept looking back and forth between J-man and I.

"What color do you think he is?" I responded.  It was the first time I had a child ask about our differences and I was half excited for an opportunity to talk about it and the other half terrified that I would say something completely confusing or just plain dumb.

"Um," she looked him over again.  "I think he's brown."

I nodded in agreement.  "I think you're right.  What color are you?"

"Peach," she replied.

"What color am I?" I asked.

"Pink," she said and then paused.  I could see she wanted to say something else.

"You are pink and he is brown."

"That's right," I replied.  "And I am his mommy and I love him very much."

"Okay!" she said.

And that was it.

I exhaled and smiled to myself, as I turned to finish changing my handsome boy, the color of caramel, with my freckled, pink arms.

Oh, that all conversations on race would be that simple and sweet.

The reality is that at some point, the questions asked aren't always so innocent, the intent behind them to divide, rather than invite.

When does the ugliness creep in? When do children begin to see differences as wrong rather than as unique?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the sacred space of our Kitchen Table.  The intentional conversations we have with our children matter tremendously. Whether it is over dinner or sitting in the carpool line, we have the biggest voice into our child's life.  Research has shown that by age twelve, most children have formed a complete set of stereotypes about ethnic, racial, and religious groups in our society.  Those first twelve years are the formative ones, where our children are looking to us for guidance, for direction, and for answers.

When it comes to conversations on race and culture with our children, it's often difficult to know what to say, when to initiate conversations, and how to answer the questions that they ask.

Here are a few points that can challenge and encourage us as we all fumble through this incredibly difficult role called parenthood:

1.  Questions are good.  The timing just may stink. 
    • Your three year-old asking why the lady in your same aisle had purple hair at the top of their voice in Target last week. 
    • Your kindergartener asking their friend why they have a white mommy and a black daddy  while standing in front of said mommy and daddy. 
    • Your first grader asking an Asian classmate how those white people could be her parents since they don't look anything like her. 
Those are experiences where the first inclination as parents may be to find any means necessary to silence our child.  Duct tape or bribing with gummy bears if they would just keep their mouth closed for ONE minute come to mind.... Yet, these are defining moments for our children.

Developmentally, they are at a point where differences are being noticed.  By age two, children can recognize and explore physical traits.  Between ages three and four, kids will start to notice skin color, hair texture, and eye shape and therefore want to ask questions to learn more.  They are classifying, noting similarities and differences, and are curious about the world around them. 

The early elementary school years are some of the most critical times for our children in matters of race and ethnicity.  They are learning the world is a much bigger place, and in addition, they are learning to rank the things around them.  Most children have learned the concept of fair and unfair by age six.  They are making groups of friends and learning what it means to feel left out of games and playground activities.  

When questions about race and ethnicity are posed by our children, they needed to be answered.   When we silence those questions, we are telling them our children that different is wrong and it is inappropriate to discuss.  When we respond in anger to their questions, we tell them that as their parents, we are not a safe place to land with their questions.  

Addressing our children's questions lets them know we hear them and that what concerns them concerns us.  We have the ability to clear up inaccuracies in their statements immediately.  Discussing questions make our children more comfortable with the differences they see.

2.  Kids aren't colorblind.  Children notice differences and they are quick to point them out.  As parents, we can celebrate the differences, in culture and race, or we can dismiss them and tell our children that everyone is the same.  

While the "everyone is the same," mantra sounds like a really clean, safe answer, the reality is that everyone is NOT the same.  We want our children to know the similarities that connect us as humans, but focusing only on the way we are alike can be detrimental.  When we simply talk with our children about how others are "just like us,"we are teaching them the potentially dangerous message that ONLY those who act, speak, or look like us are acceptable.

As parents we need to talk about how families are different and celebrate the uniqueness of each example.  When our children know that we are a safe place for their questions to land, we have the privilege and the opportunity to set the foundation of a healthy perspective on the world around us. 

3.  Our past experiences should not determine our children's future relationships. Before we can speak into the lives of our children, we have to look into our own history to decide what to carry into the next generation. Often, our past is what is hampering us from talking honestly with our children about race.

When we decide to bring children into our world, whether biologically or through adoption, we take on the responsibility of investing into their little hearts and minds.  As parents, we owe it to them to leave our stereotypes and personal experiences behind.  Our children deserve the opportunity to experience the world with unblemished eyes and minds.

4. They are listening.  While you may have to say your child's name fifteen times before they respond about picking up their toys, those same little ears are at full attention in your conversations with other adults.

At holiday dinners, swim meets and soccer games, and in the grocery store, our children are watching us interact with others.  What we say and do not say is setting the foundation for their future relationships with others.

If someone is saying disparaging things about another person in front of us and we say nothing, that speaks volumes to our children.  They are following not only what we do but what we say and do not say.  We set the example for courage and justice in our children.  Modeling compassion and justice for them needs to be paramount over our own insecurities and unwillingness to "rock the boat," during inappropriate conversations with other adults.

5. We don't always need to have the perfect answer.  There will be times when our children ask questions that may throw completely us for a loop.  We may not have a clue how to handle it.  In those moments, not having an answer is okay.  Letting our kids know that we have heard them and that we need to think about their question for a little bit is completely acceptable, as long as we DO answer them.  

In the meantime, the best way to understand our child's intention is to dig deeper about their question.  When we understand the heart behind their curiosity, we are able to help them find meaningful answers to their questions. 

As parents, we need to give ourselves boatloads of grace.  Perfect answers won't always be given. Conversations with our toddler in the aisle of Target won't always run smoothly.

Our children will learn not only from the content of the conversations but also the fact that they are occurring at all.

Friends, I am no expert on race relations.  Quite honestly, I wrote this as a challenge to myself for the years ahead.

I grew up in a white town, surrounded by white friends.  Went to a mainly white college, attended a church full of white faces.  Taught elementary school for five years in upper income white school.  Spent another five years in high school ministry at a school that is 80% caucasian. 

In the past four years, I have moved into a diverse community where my immediate neighbors are Asian, African American, and Caucasian.  In the past two years, I have become a mom to three black boys.  My world has opened up in extraordinary ways that have often left me feeling ill-equipped for my role as a parent.  

I am fumbling through this adventure, failing miserably at times.  But I know what I want for my boys, and growing up living in a bubble is not the answer.  So, I'm pressing on, striving for them to experience a community where differences are welcomed and being unique is celebrated.  

I'd LOVE to hear from YOU on this.  How are you encouraging your children to celebrate the differences in others? How have you handled their challenging questions?  Are there any experiences you would have handled differently? 


  1. I loved this post. Similarly, God has recently been breaking down barriers in my life as I moved from small town to big city. As a teacher, I always try to discuss race with my students and I always get choked up telling them that they can be the change for our future. It is amazing to see how innocent they are as children. Where does it change? How can we stop it from happening? Those are the big questions I guess.

    1. Megan, thanks for your thoughts! It's important to remember that you have such an influence as a teacher. In elementary school, those precious little ones you teach are hanging on to your every word. You play such an integral role!!!

  2. Did you read Kylie's post on this similar subject. Great post, your's too!

    1. Haven't read it yet- but now I'm planning on it! Thanks Sara!

  3. Thank you for this post. I am a new foster mom to an African American infant and it's really been an adjustment for me. I grew up very sheltered, and hardly saw diversity. The town we live in now is not that diverse, so this has been hard for me- harder than I thought it would be.
    I have two biological children and I have realized that I have not done much to teach them about differences, but I hope we have taught them to have kindness and respect for everyone.
    They have surprised me and melted my heart with this little guy. They haven't asked a lot of questions, they've just welcomed this little one into our home. Once someone mentioned how curly the baby's hair was, and my daughter said "That's because he is African American" very matter of factly. It's amazing the love of children that sees the differences, but they don't matter to them!
    Thank you for the encouragement!

  4. This post and the Kitchen Table one are awesome!! I (Amanda) have been following your blog for quite a while and love what you have to say! We are are in Colombia right now adopting our little girl who is Hispanic. There have been issues with race in the past within our family, partly due to the fact that we are white and my step-sister married an African American man and they have 3 beautiful children together....and while our family has been pretty supportive it is still an issue that needs lots of education among us! Would you mind if I shared your articles on my blog (giving you credit of course!) so that my family might read them?? Thank you for your continued encouragement and words of wisdom along your journey of parenthood!

    1. Hi Amanda!
      Please feel free to share any of my posts on your blog! I'm honored that you feel they should be shared! And congratulations on the adoption of your little girl!!!!!!