Children express curiosity about ethnic differences at a young age.

What to Say When a Child Recognizes Different Skin Color

by Dr. Sonya Lott

Once they start talking, young children ask many interesting questions. Preschool-age children spend a lot of time asking “why” questions. This is the age when children begin to notice skin color and other obvious physical differences among the people around them. Because ethnic diversity is a “hot button” topic, these types of questions may be challenging or even embarrassing to answer, depending on the setting. How you respond to these questions now will have an impact on the child's thinking about ethnic diversity - about her own ethnicity and that of others - far into the future.

1. How Preschoolers Think

At age three and four, children are just starting to think logically and want to understand the world around them. With their new basic mastery of language, they begin asking “why” questions. They are motivated to understand their world but aren’t yet forming opinions about most things. At this age, the thinking of preschoolers is concrete and specific. As children’s awareness of their world increases, they begin to notice physical differences between themselves and others. It is common for them to notice differences in gender, skin color, hair texture and eye shape, reports the Miller Early Childhood Initiative of a World of Difference Institute.

2. Importance of Answering Questions

It is important to answer your children’s questions about ethnic diversity at this early age because they have not become rigid in their thinking about ethnic and racial differences, notes the article “Talking to Our Children About Racism & Diversity,” posted on the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund website. As the parent, you have the opportunity to teach your children about diversity in a way that will help them recognize and appreciate racial and ethnic differences and similarities.

3. Discussing Differences

In answering a child’s questions, parents sometimes give more information than children can understand or need. When your preschooler asks you about skin color, ask him a few questions to find out what he is most curious about or what prompted the question. For a three-year-old, you will likely discover that it is an innocent curiosity. He has simply noticed a difference. Remember that at this age children are concrete and specific in their thinking. They are able to verbalize a lot more than they understand. Be sure to give him concrete and specific answers. Something as simple as explaining that all people have skin colors may be sufficient. Four-year-olds can sometimes understand more scientific explanations, so you may be able to explain that different people have different level of hormones (such as melanin) that are responsible for color.

4. Discussing Similarities

Preschoolers select some playmates based on perceived similarities, reports a research study published in the “Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.” Be sure to point out similarities that may not be so obvious between your child and children with different skin colors. To avoid teaching prejudice, try not to associate skin color with personality characteristics or ways of behaving. There are many books, videos and other educational tools that you can use to integrate diversity into everyday activities.

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