Help! My kindergartener is a racist!
February 9, 2012 3:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I explain to my six-year-old that different is good? (And do damage control until the lesson sinks in?)

So, my daughter is six, and she's kind of an oddball. Her verbal skills are way ahead of her emotional intelligence and, in some ways, her cognitive abilities. She also has some troubling anxiety issues, which have become more pronounced since her dad and I separated last year.

Lately, though, she's developed a disturbing (to me) aversion to people who are different from her. She "doesn't like" the developmentally disabled kid in her class, she asks people about their distinguishing facial features (yes, we're still working on her manners too), and, most disturbingly, this weekend she told a South American friend that she should "talk more white."

Now, I'm not even sure what happened with that last one. I'm not sure she even understands the concept of race, and my ex-husband (he was the one present for the incident) thinks she actually may have been saying "right" in baby talk.

Even so: my kid is noting/criticizing people's accents and other differences, often to their faces. Aside from working on her manners, what can I do to help her be more comfortable with people who are different from her in various ways?
posted by missrachael to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just model the kind of behavior you want her to adopt. In the meantime, don't overreact to a kid saying stupid kid stuff. Every kid goes through the phase of being embarrassingly public about differences. They'll notice the guy in drag and say "why are you wearing a dress?" and they'll notice the person with the hair lip and say "why is your mouth funny?" That's just what kid's do. They're trying to learn about the world, they understand a lot of its "rules" (which are pretty weird and arbitrary) and their really, really curious about everything that "breaks" the "rules." I think the important thing is not to scold her if she's crossing a line she just has no way of being able to perceive.

The "rule" that my parent's taught to me early on was "you don't make personal comments about other people." I'm sure that at age six I screwed it up a lot, but it's a fairly good all-purpose rule and one you can tuck things like "talk more white/right" into without trying to explain racism to a six-year-old.
posted by yoink at 3:34 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

In regards to "talk more white", perhaps, in the mind of a 6 year old (I'm assuming here she's white), she was asking the S.A. friend to speak more clear English so that she could better understand the friend, rather than intending to be totally insulting. To a 6 year old who maybe hears the clearest English from "white" people, that would make the most sense, rather than to ask directly to speak English.

In regards to the disabled kid (if they have something like Downs Syndrome), perhaps he has lashed out at her. I know the kid who has it in the class I work in sometimes pulls the kids hair to get their attention or smacks them, not to hurt them, but to get attention, so perhaps that happened to her and she doesn't like him for reasons other than he is disabled. Maybe she doesn't like him cuz he can't play jump rope or go on the swings with her or something?

I would look deeper into the causes for this behavior than just people's differences, too.
posted by fuzzysoft at 3:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine did this with her young child who was acting the same way.

She asked him to sit down at a table and lifted up a napkin that showed him four of his favorite different kinds of goodies - let's say one was a handful of M&Ms, another was a Reese's peanut butter cup, a third was a Snickers and the last one was a bowl of his favorite ice cream.

He was allowed to have a bite of each. Just a bite. It made him want M.A.W.R.

She pointed out that each one, like people, represented all kinds of good. And people, like candies, came in all different shapes and sizes and flavors. She asked him to think of four different kinds of people who might represent someone who looked, acted, or spoke differently.

He. Got It.
posted by HeyAllie at 3:38 PM on February 9, 2012 [53 favorites]

I am not a parent, but recently saw a bit on Nate Berkus's (cancelled) show about how it's not necessarily inappropriate to ask people about their visible differences, provided you do it nicely & with sincere inquisitiveness.

I totally like the candy example.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2012

As a six year old, I'm not sure I would have responded to a "different is good" speech positively. I think it would have sounded like "eat your vegetables, they are good." Which is clearly a lie.

I would try to frame it more like "different is not bad". Almost a six year old version of people's rights. Everyone has feelings, not everyone is born with the same abilities, and it isn't always easy to deal with everyone's differences. (I think it is important to acknowledge that point, because an anxious six year old is going to know it is harder to deal with some people than others. So agree and empathize, and remind her that that isn't an excuse.) People with different accents are hard to understand, but she might be hard for the other person to understand.

In other words, don't tell he she has to like the kid. But that she does have to respect the kid and his right to be there and participate the same way she does.

In other, other words, I think this is where you need to teach her to think empathetically. Her first reaction toward different might be "fear/eew/ick/what is that thing on your nose", and when she feels that, that's where she needs to put herself in the other person's shoes and ask herself how she'd like to be treated. She is almost there, because she is curious about other people. You just have to help her shift that away from the judgy-ness and toward cooperation and being nice to people.
posted by gjc at 4:36 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

My first thought after reading your post was that there must be some good children's books out there that can help in this sort of situation. A quick google search turned up this list.
posted by seriousmoonlight at 4:49 PM on February 9, 2012

I think gjc is right. "Vegetables are good." Is clearly a lie.

That said...

I would add that kids are naturally curious, so them asking about "distinguishing facial features" is just to me a sign of a good healthy curious mind. Making sure not to get TOO into it, and that they understand some boundaries is good, but don't make her be afraid to ask questions.

My ex has fibro and would at times need to walk with a cain, and one day a young boy came running up to her and innocently asked "what's that? why do you have it?" and his mother was all apologetic, but it gave my ex a chance to explain her situation, and he had a chance to have an early lesson on disabilities.

Speaking of -- the first thought I had was in line w/fuzzysoft -- maybe it's not his disability that made her not like him -- maybe he was doing something that she didn't like.

As for the "white" thing, it could be "right" in childspeak, it could be, as someone else mentioned "white" because all that she knows is "white" and easier to understand. I don't think, as you said, she is putting too much racial issues at the forefront.

So take this as an opportunity to teach her that it's ok to be different, yes. But don't worry too much because to her, being so young, EVERYTHING is different. We're used to the sameness of life as adults, but children are still learning about the world around them, exploring and finding out new things about the people around them ("These are the people in your neighborhood...") and all that.

Maybe you can google Free to be you and me and find some clips to show her.

As a side joke, regarding the idea that the boy was mean to her and that's why she didn't like him, I thought of this classic Mr. Show sketch.
posted by symbioid at 4:55 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

When my kiddo was that age (and going through her father and I divorcing as well), I overvocalized empathy at every turn. Because kids that age just don't have it yet. Not out of some sense of evil, but because they're starting to realize they are different from other people. It's the same reason my kiddo went crazy nuts with the pink princess crap at that time -- I AM A DIFFERENT GENDER AND I WANT TO MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS THIS CLEARLY!!!!!

I know you read (metric craptons) with your kiddo. And you probably do the probing questions to get her to absorb the book lessons. But when we read a book together, I would do stuff like, "Wendy sounds like she's tough and she knows what she's doing and like she knows how to be a mom to all those boys, but if I were her, I'd be scared to mess up" or "that would make me so sad if everyone called me 'Mary Quite Contrary' and made fun of me." Or, "Wow, Digory is so kind to everyone, even if they're sour like Mary or spoiled like Colin. Why do you think he's so nice? Do you think that's the same reason the animals like him?"

If she's receptive to that, you can talk to her about how it would feel if she couldn't use words to express herself because of a disability, or if everyone talked differently than her -- although I wouldn't jump straight into it.

But her brain is capable of just so much empathy right now. It's a stage. As long as you and her dad are steering her gently (rather than punishing her outright which could weird her out more), she'll come through it fine. We all have that moment of the 6 year old in the grocery store saying, "What's wrong with that guy?" at the top of their lungs. Think of it as a toll booth on the kid's path to being the awesome, empathetic person you'll be hanging out with for the next 13 or so years.
posted by Gucky at 5:21 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's totally normal for kids at this age to become fanatic about differences. We all think in categories, they are short cuts for processing all the information we're bombarded with every second of the day. Starting to point out these differences is her way of learning what is similar and what is different about all sorts of things (and people). The trick is to avoid attaching a value judgment to those traits. Acknowledge the differences she points out in as nonjudgmental a way as possible ("yes, she's tall and mommy is shorter" "people speak in all kinds of ways, don't they? Some are loud, and some are quiet, some have different accents, it's interesting isn't it?"). You can even help her see that people aren't TOTALLY different. Like pointing out things that the child in her class does that are similar to her or how much they both like to laugh while still acknowledging that she is different too - "Yes, she speaks/learns/whatever differently to you. I noticed that you both like playing dress up, so some things are the same."

When the way she points out differences is hurtful, it's ok to say so. Maybe you could encourage her to ask you questions about it rather than the other people. The more anxious and uncomfortable you act about her pointing these things out, though, the more she gets the subconscious message that there is something negative or shameful about the differences she is noticing.

And like everything else with kids, this too shall pass. Hang in there, mom.
posted by goggie at 6:51 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was a little bit racist until third or fourth grade. I didn't really say anything racist out loud (except the one time I told an asian man that I had eaten in his restaurant the night before, having eaten chinese food), so nobody could correct me on anything. But I remember thinking some unfortunate stuff. Mostly, it was coming from limited exposure - I didn't go to a very diverse school, so I generalized a lot about different races based on the one or two people of that race I had met. I grew out of it - I'm sure other people have good specific advice, but I just want you to know that this doesn't mean your kid is a monster, and it doesn't mean he's going to stay this way.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:07 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

this might just be a kid thing... if they grow up seeing all white people in their family, they start school and see different colors and it's weird for them. maybe once she's around all sorts of people for a while it won't be an issue because that will be the new normal.

one of my biggest pet peeves is racism. my family was racist, so of course, as a teenager, i dated a black guy and almost got disowned. have you ever heard of south americans who are racist towards mexicans? i grew up with that insanity.

a lot of people from older generations have clung to the racist mentality, so maybe if your daughter is around grandparents or their friends, maybe she picked up something?

to my surprise, my son had a similar situation where he saw a black boy and asked someone who "the brown kid" was. it wasn't meant as a mean gesture, but since the boy heard him, i assume he was hurt by it. i know i was, and i felt like i had failed as a parent.

eventually i found out that my son had witnessed his grandparents having one of their usual racist conversations when he spent the weekend with them.

i think children are too innocent for something like this to have come from a negative/evil place, so my best guess is that your daughter saw this somewhere and subconsciously picked it up. maybe other kids in school, maybe even on tv out of context, who knows.

i know this doesn't answer your question of how to fix it, but knowing the source can help go about things. i quit letting my son stay alone with my parents, for example.

as for the disabled kid, i agree with fuzzysoft: perhaps she had a negative encounter that made her associate that particular kid or someone who looks similar with something scary.

or maybe she's used to everyone on tv looking 'perfect' and expects that from the real world. my son used to think women should constantly be wearing make-up, so seeing me looking normal at night he wondered why i was weird and different. he grew out of stereotyping once he got more mature.

maybe she's too young for this but you could try telling her she would be the same person if her skin color was different or if her eyes looked different, and that she wouldn't be able to understand anyone else in another country, but i don't know how much of that a kindergartener would get before they thought you were nuts :)

i also agree with goggie about human nature wanting to do as much as possible with little information, so we categorize. as adults we've all learned to categorize in a more politically correct way so it seems racist when a kid says 'talk more white' but she probably didn't mean it like it sounds.

you seem concerned about this, which is a good sign. it's hard to grow up being an inconsiderate ass when you have good parents who care, so you're doing fine :)
posted by carielewyn at 7:17 PM on February 9, 2012

It is natural for kids to see difference and to identify with the people who are most like them. There is a chapter about this in the helpful book Nurtureshock, and the part on race is summarized here.

Also, I really, really liked the candy illustration and I'm going to use that on my toddler when she's a bit older (and actually eats candy!).
posted by onlyconnect at 7:35 PM on February 9, 2012

There's a good discussion of this in the book NurtureShock. The essence is that kids notice differences like skin color because they need to categorize the world, and skin color is really obvious. There's nothing inherently wrong with that instinct. It's also perfectly natural to then deduce that "my category is the best". The flip side of this however is you can't raise a colorblind kid without talking about how race isn't a good way to categorize people. Kids are going to try to understand their world by categorizing everything in it. It's up to adults to help them know which categories are useful (stranger-danger) and which are not (race/gender/etc).
posted by klao at 7:55 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

When my kid was about that age, we had some of the same problems. What ended up working was sitting down and listing all the ways that people she loved were different. Grandpa uses a walker, Katie's very fat, Lisa's very short, Liz has brown skin, mommy sometimes needs braces on her knees, Jess has an accent... Once she started to recognize the different things that were, for her, normal, it became a lot easier for her to normalize new different things.
posted by MeghanC at 10:40 PM on February 9, 2012

I talk with my kids about how everyone has challenges. We know many people with disabilities, so it comes up a lot.

So-and-so's challenge is that she has a tough time walking when she's tired. So-and-so's challenge is that he has a tough time talking, but he understands just fine and you can talk to him just like you do the other kids. My challenge is keeping my temper. Do you have any challenges, sweetie? Any skills you're working on?

From an adult perspective it can be ridiculous -- I'm comparing not knowing how to read yet with having dwarfism with having autism with being cranky -- but my kids seem to understand it, and I think it's helped.

(Note: this is about disabilities. Obviously I'm not suggesting you say that so-and-so's challenge is that they have dark brown skin.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:26 PM on February 12, 2012

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