When Your Child First Notices Race

Instilling a positive racial identity in your transracially adopted child will help her develop into a secure, tolerant adult.

A mother helping her child develop a positive racial identity

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 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.


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