National Nanny Training Day Conference: When children have questions about skin tone, how will you respond?

presented by Lucretia Berry.

National Nanny Training Day
National Nanny Training Day Conference

‘Why is your skin a different color than mine?’

‘My skin is not white/black, why is it called white/black?’

What are some of the skin tone or race related questions that you’ve been asked by a child? One summer I was collecting data in an Appalachian preschool where everyone was white. A sweet little boy walked up to me and asked me why my legs were brown. I could sense that his question made the adults uncomfortable, but I thought that he and his question were adorable. How would you have answered his question?

Addressing the toddler was easy. It was the discomfort of the adults that caught me off guard. Why were the adults uncomfortable with his question? Because they were more than likely taught to be colorblind. Colorblindness is the notion that If we say we don’t see skin color or talk about it, racism will go away and that the person who mentions skin tone or race is racist. I guess colorblindness sounds good in theory, but not only did it make us an empty promise, it left us void of the language and ability to have seemingly simple conversations with children.

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You shouldn’t avoid talking with children about skin tone and race. Research shows that because children are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism, shunning conversations about race and skin tone will not produce the desired ‘everyone is equal’ mindset.

Having conversations about skin tone void of shame and discomfort in their early years empowers children with the right language and foundation for engaging in more complex conversations about race when the opportunity presents itself.

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Here are some ways to talk with children about skin tone and race. When children talk about skin being brown, peach, pink, etc., they are simply noticing the obvious. The observation of skin tone is not inherently connected to the social, political construct of race. So, when children have questions about skin tone, we don’t need to launch into a civil rights speech right away.

Here is how it plays out in our home. Our family is multi-ethnic—white dad, black mom, and three little girls, currently ranging in ages from four to eight. Because the race concept is complex and confusing (for adults to understand, let alone children) we gave ourselves a language and narrative to acknowledge our five different skin tones (and five different hair textures) without using race terminology like ‘white’ and ‘black.’  Starting from when our oldest was a preschooler, here’s a little of what we do.

  1. We talk about ‘melanin’. Melanin is why our skin tones are different ‘hues of brown.’ Mommy has more or darker melanin. Daddy has lighter or less. We use fun descriptors for our skin tone like ‘sugar cookie, caramel, peanut butter, chocolate.’ We make up songs about our different skin tones and we celebrate them!  (SIDE BAR: We talk about our hair in terms of various degrees, ranging from dad’s super straight hair to mommy’s infinitely kinky curly hair. There is no ‘white hair, black hair or ethnic hair.)
  2. We talk about geography and ancestry. Our children’s ancestors who lived closer to the equator have darker melanin and their ancestors who lived further away from the equator have lighter melanin. Having ancestors from Italy, Germany and Africa has contributed to our beautiful ‘hues of brown.’ 
  3. We talk about the history of race/ism. Around seven years of age, our oldest daughter understood the concept of race. We explained that around 400 years ago, someone divided people by skin color in order to give white people advantages by taking away opportunities for people of color. She read non-fiction children’s books, like Who Was Abraham Lincoln, Meet Addy: An American Girl, Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr., and learned of the atrocities and consequences of racism. As you can imagine, racism upsets children (as it should), so we also talk a lot about hope for the future. If we are educated about race/ism and passionate about change, we can create a better world!     

In children, we have the opportunity to cultivate a future overflowing with love, justice, peace, unity and fun. Telling the truth about skin tone and race/ism will only equip and empower them to help get us there. 

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Related Resources

Your Children See Color—and It’s Beautiful! Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Talk About It. Online: For Every Mom. Lucretia Berry (2016)

Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse? Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children. Bronson & Merryman. (2009) Here is a summary.