Ask AF: Four-Year-Old Expressing Negativity About Her Skin Color

The mother of a preschooler shares her concern about negative comments her daughter has been making about her skin color. Parents who have been there offer advice.

Q: I am Latina, my husband is white, and our four-year-old daughter is African-American. She recently told us that people don’t want to play with her because she has brown skin, and that she wants to have white skin like Daddy. We try really hard to help her develop a positive self-image. All of her dolls have various shades of brown skin and she has many books with lead characters who are of color, as well as books about skin tone and differences. She attends a Montessori school that stresses kindness and appreciation for other cultures. I work at a university, so she is regularly exposed to people and events from different cultures. However, the small, rural town where we live is over 90 percent white. What can we do? We’re even wondering if we should move to a more diverse town, even though it would mean leaving friends and living farther from work.

Members of adoptivefamiliescircle.com respond:

“I am a 38-year-old transracial adoptee. My twin brother and I are Native American with a dark complexion. When we were four or five, my brother asked my mom if she could put bleach in the water so he could be white like her. My mom thought it was cute and really never addressed the issue. Growing up, my parents never tried to integrate us with other children who looked like us. Everywhere we went I would look for those with darker skin tones. I would definitely notice if I was the only one of color. My advice is to embrace every aspect of your daughter’s culture and background. Find playgroups or friends who identify with her race. I wish my parents had done that for me and my brother—branched out to new neighborhoods, churches, schools, and social circles. Just know that, whether or not she verbalizes this again, it is something she will think about all the time. It’s not a bad thing that she wants look like you or fit in with the rest of the family. Embrace her remarks and understand she sees the differences.”

“My son went through something similar around that age. He wanted to have ‘pink skin,’ like me. It took us a while to work through it, and I finally came to understand it as his wanting to ‘match’ me.  He wasn’t getting bothered by other people about it; he just thought I was pretty and wanted to look more like me so he’d be pretty, too. It started right around pre-K, so he was separating a bit more and I think wanting the security of ‘belonging together.’ I tell him often that he’s beautiful (he is), and we talk about similarities; my favorite was when he came up with his being brown and my having ‘brown spots’ (I have a lot of freckles and moles). I’ve also tried to comment on specific people of all races as being beautiful. It’s a bit uncomfortable, because I always tried to focus on non-physical attributes when I talk about what I admire in people, but I’m getting better at it.”

“Have you tried to find a child her age who is also black and with whom she can play on a regular basis? I would start by looking for an adoption playgroup, as there tend to be a lot of interracial adoptions. It would be good for her to see and interact with kids who look like her.”

“I’m also in a biracial marriage. I am white and my wife is black, and our three children are all black. Our son started saying similar things around the same age despite also having all the books, a mostly non-white preschool class, and one black parent to identify with. He was getting questioned by other children about why he looked different from his mommy.  He also wanted so badly to identify with me (specifically, he wanted freckles and to have ‘lived in my tummy’). He still wishes for straight hair like his mostly white classmates in first grade. Anyway,  I think it’s a combination of budding social awareness, attachment/identification, normal development. Maybe try to find a more diverse play group? Moving is a drastic change, yet it could be worth it if your community doesn’t reflect your daughter.”

“You mentioned that she has all dolls with brown skin. Maybe she can have some Latina and white dolls, too, so that her whole family will be represented? At that age, most children want to be like Mommy and Daddy. This simple game can emphasize things you have in common: Dad could say, “We all like movies”; Mom could say, “We all like bike riding”; the child could say, “We all like dogs”; and keep going around the circle. You could also go on an outing (and take some cute pictures) of the three of you dressed alike. It does sound like your area being mostly white could be part of it. Your daughter may see only white teachers, librarians, police, doctors, salespeople. Do you go to more integrated areas to attend church, shop, or just to visit?”

“I agree that embracing every aspect of your daughter’s culture helps. Also, remember to talk about how beautiful, smart, and talented she is often. (It needs to be frequent to counteract the pervasive discrimination of our culture.) Point out other people of color you admire. I am not necessarily a proponent of moving; there can be benefits to and harm from uprooting and moving to a bigger city, so that is a very individual decision. I would make a concentrated effort to have black professionals in your and your child’s life, and to find black friends for yourself as well as your daughter. It is easy to talk about everyone being valuable, but if none of a parent’s friends are black (or of the child’s race), he/she will not feel welcome. I have also found that going with her to black churches and events, and vacationing in areas where you are in the minority instead of her, are good exercises in understanding how your child may feel on an everyday basis.”

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