Ways to Help Children Understand How to Be Anti-Racist


anti-racist childrenProtests for racial justice and conversations about what it means to be anti-racist have led parents and educators throughout the world to soul search. What does it mean to be anti-racist? How can we teach and model anti-racist behavior to young children?

Like so many others, I have been asking the question: How can we help young children understand how to be anti-racist?

I am a white educator, leading a child care center and preschool with a diverse student and family population that has been open through the pandemic and the protests. I’ve tried to provide a haven of hope, a home away from home in which each child is accepted and celebrated, and in which each family is safe to be themselves. 

The pandemic is hard enough; drafting and implementing health and safety protocols, while simultaneously planning how to stay afloat financially. Then came the protests and the recognition that the health, healing, and hope the world needs is not only physical.

I was challenged to look at myself and question whether I was doing what is responsible and possible to help the very young children in my care, of all colors, understand how to be anti-racist and how to celebrate their own and each other’s identities.

I open with a disclaimer. This post will not offer you 3, or 5, or 10 steps to raising anti-racist kids. It won’t suggest you have conversations about race, read your children books featuring children of different races, or purchase dolls and crayons of different skin tones. Those are likely all very good ideas. Yet, they are insufficient.Helping Young Children To Understand How To Be Anti-Racist

Understanding the ways young children make sense of race and racial identity requires us to stretch our minds and open our hearts. Only with substantive, nuanced understanding will we be able to begin to formulate effective strategies and approaches to helping children be anti-racist.

A compelling infographic They’re Not Too Young To Talk About Race, created by The Children’s Community School in Philadelphia, is a great start. While reviewing the infographic is helpful, it is even more helpful to read the research studies cited. We can then consider for ourselves the implications of the research, along with ways of applying the learning with our own children.

I propose an exercise for those of us willing to take the time to immerse ourselves in what racism and anti-racism mean for young children. Take a look at the one-sentence summaries shared in the infographic, and reprinted below. Then follow the links to read the full studies cited. Try to write your own one-sentence summary of the articles cited (warning – it’s not easy). Reflect on how to apply the findings to modeling anti-racist behavior with your young children. I’ve only just begun this exercise myself and would be grateful for partners in this journey toward understanding. 

For the quick version:

At Three Months: At birth, babies look equally at faces of all races. At three months, babies look more at faces that match the race of their caregivers. (Kelly et al. 2005)

Article: Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces

At Two Years: Children as young as two years use race to reason about people’s behaviors. (Hirschfeld, 2008)

Article: Children’s Developing Conceptions of Race 

At Two-and-a-Half Years (30 Months): By 30 months, most children use race to choose playmates. (Katz & Kofkin, 1997)

Article: Do infants show social preferences for people differing in race?

At Four and Five: Expressions of racial prejudice often peak at ages 4 and 5. (Aboud, 2008)

Article: Interventions to reduce prejudice and enhance inclusion and respect for ethnic differences in early childhood: A systematic review

At Five: By five, Black and Latinx children in research settings show no preference toward their own groups compared to Whites; White children at this age remain strongly biased in favor of whiteness. (Dunham et al., 2008)

Article: The development of implicit intergroup cognition

In Kindergarten: By kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes that adults in our culture hold — they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others. (Kinzler, 2016)

Note: This citation is from an op-ed piece in the NY times, available only to subscribers to the paper. However, I did find different research citing Kinzler. For Example (Skinner and Meltzoff, 2019): Childhood Experiences and Intergroup Biases among Children

At Six +: Explicit conversations with 5–7-year-olds about interracial friendship can dramatically improve their racial attitudes in as little as a single week. (Bronson & Merryman, 2009)

This one is a book you’ll need to purchase or take out from the library to read: NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.

While what I suggest is, admittedly, a huge amount of work, I strongly believe that we owe it to our children and the world they will inherit, to delve into the messy, uncomfortable waters of understanding real research on race and racial identity. I invite you to engage and welcome your insights and reflections.