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When Your Child First Notices Race

How do you make sure your child feels good about herself?

by Sophia Chin

Four-year-old Elizabeth came home from preschool in tears. A classmate had pulled up the corners of his eyes and said, "Your eyes are like this!"

"My daughter was crushed," says Julia, who adopted Elizabeth from China as an infant. "Last year, Elizabeth had no clue about race or being different. Now she talks about it all the time."

Julia's experience is typical for Caucasian parents who adopt transracially. How do they instill a positive sense of racial identity in their children?

Start early. If parents are reticent about introducing the subject, children may fill in the blanks with their still-immature understanding. For example, three-year-old Lindsay wanted to give her Indian friend, Ashoka, a bath because "his skin is dirty."

This is also the age when children begin to absorb negative stereotypes from the larger culture. Since "black" often carries negative connotations--bad guys, death--children may associate these things with black people.

By introducing positive racial concepts early, parents can thwart such negative concepts and introduce a world view consistent with their values.

Don't ignore difference. If the only people of color children encounter are waiters or maids, they will make assumptions about the social status of people of color. Extend your circle of friends to include people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Non-white professionals can be positive role models.

Point out similarities and differences. Talk about things you have in common with your child, as well as things you don't. Perhaps you both adore chocolate. Maybe you love asparagus and your child hates it. The message you're delivering is twofold: that difference is normal and acceptable, and that despite differences, family members have much in common.

Give words their meaning. Describe friends and family as "white," "black," or "Asian." Use words such as "stereotype" or "prejudice." This is the time to introduce these complicated concepts. Books can help make the words familiar.

Parents who introduce these issues early on help their children take pride in their race and their heritage.

Sophia Chin is a social worker in Boston, Massachusetts.


Talking to your child about racial and ethnic differences will not--as some parents fear--make her more self-conscious. Here's how to begin a dialogue with your preschooler.

1If you and your child are of different races or ethnicities, use claiming statements to help her see how you are similar: "Wow, you are a good artist, just like Daddy." On the other hand, let her know that differences are OK, too: "Your skin is a beautiful shade of brown. Mommy has freckles, and Daddy turns bright pink in the sun!"

2Teach your child what to say if a playmate asks about differences (why her hair is blonder than her brother's, and so on). Hearing comments about how "weird" or "different" she is will tear at a child's sense of self-esteem, unless you've role-played such scenerios many times.

3When your preschooler asks questions, find out what she really wants to know. If she asks, "Why are my eyes so much rounder than yours?" she may be wondering about her birth family, asking whether she fits in with yours, or simply seeking an answer ("Every person's eyes are a unique shape and color").

4If your preschooler tells you about cruel or insensitive racial or ethnic comments directed at her, take time to gather your thoughts before replying. Don't let your emotions get in the way of giving her a calm, informed response.

Join the Transracial Families group on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle

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