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Talking to Toddlers About Race: 5 Things I’m Trying With My Two Year Old

This summer, we’ve seen a collective awakening of racial injustice and racism. I’ve been a little silent on the blog. We as humans have a desire to do things right and not make mistakes or offend. However, when it comes to racism, it’s not an IF, but WHEN situation. As a white woman raising a white son, not showing up until I have something perfect… Is not ok. So it’s the same with talking to toddlers about race. It needs to be an ongoing thing. I’ll get stuff wrong. I’ll hopefully learn. We’ll keep trying. So. Onward!

Over the last 6 weeks, my social and blog feeds have been flooded with “kids and race” posts. “How to talk to kids about racism”, “books for kids about racism”, “black businesses to support” etc. Most of these are great resources, but they’re really geared for older kids or just about shopping. At this age, it’s mostly about me. And what I’m doing (and not doing), and saying (and not saying) to him.

I’m a firm believer in real examples and scripts as a learning tool and change agent. Yes, many times we can agree something is wrong, or needs fixing. But having some tools to see how others are working on something can really help. I recently read Me and White Supremacy. As I worked through the book, I was thinking not only about my own experiences with race, but also about how I can raise my two year old as a good ancestor. I’ve been thinking about topics and conversations that we can have, beyond reading books about racism [that are usually geared for older ages or elementary kids]. Here are a few things on my mind lately…

Talking to Toddlers about Race and Racism - 5 Things I'm Trying

#1. My 2 year old is always watching and listening to ME. I am learning so much by reading Me & White Supremacy.

He will learn from me, not by me surrounding him with multi-cultural books and toys. It’s been on my mind a lot that we live in a fairly white area – Portland, Oregon. I grew up in the Northwest, so this isn’t news to me. Portland is 72% white, 9% hispanic, 6% black, 7% asian (our neighborhood is about the same, but 9% black). By comparison, my nieces live in Hawaii, their area is 31% white, 23% asian, and 20% islanders, and 0.5% black.

Who do I surround myself with? I’ve also been thinking about what a strange time it is for this growth in awareness of racism and inequality. To be happening right now in the midst of a pandemic is fascinating. When I’ve asked myself, like “ok what does he see me doing? Who do I surround myself with? What kind of children is he seeing at parks and playgrounds and activities in our community?” Ummm… none. NO children. That’s who. lol In reality though, he is seeing the kids on our street when we’re out for walks. And on our end of the street – six houses: that’s seven white boys ages 2-8. Yes, we live on a street with only boys. No pressure.

Right now, the biggest thing I can do that impacts him, is learning more about racism, how I fit into that, and what I can do to create change. I recently finished Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad. It’s a lot to work through and journal, and a lot of terms that I wasn’t even familiar with. So I’m learning and some of it’s uncomfortable and embarrassing and just… wow. Check it out. I found the Kindle version to be really great since you can highlight and bookmark easily.

#2. Books, toys, TV shows, and movies matter, but it’s not everything – Follow @TheConsciousKid

Books – I think it’s important to have people of color represented in books, toys, shows etc. Since before my child’s birth, I have been very conscious of gender representation. Both in what he’s surrounded with – playing and reading. About a year ago, I started following an Instagram account @TheConsciousKid. They’ve really helped bring to mind racial representation as well. I would recommend following them.

Book-wise, it seems like at least half of books for the preschool age are either animal or vehicle oriented. Then, there are books you’ve received as gifts or hand-me downs. And then you’re left with what you’ve consciously decided to add to your collection. The final grouping for us, is library books. Most new books we buy or check out from the library seem to have a mix of races or a leading character is a person of color. Toddlers don’t need books about racism or race. They just need to see that there are people who don’t look like them. And that they have other things in common with people who don’t look like them.

TV Shows and movies We usually watch, on average, one 30 minute show a day. In summertime, it’s probably a bit less and winter time a bit more. Right now, his favorite shows are Stinky and Dirty (trucks), Leo the Truck (trucks), Daniel Tiger (animals and people), and Pete the Cat (animals). Daniel Tiger is the only show he’s watching right now that has people. There is a black girl named Miss Elaina and her dad, Music Man Stan, and a teacher named Harriet. I like that this show follows Mr Rogers values in diversity.

Toys We don’t really have many people type toys. We aren’t really doll crazy over here, just stuffed animals. And any “people” like with trains stuff are just wooden. However, our LEGO Duplos have people and newer sets are more equally gendered and colored. Since we were gifted some hand me down construction set with white/yellow men, I made a point in having a set we ordered from the new design that is two girls, one brown and one black. It’s pretty cool that Duplo is wising up that kids need all colors of Lego people. Hopefully, they keep making these sets. And aren’t just trying to knock out the gender and race category with one series. Are you listening LEGO?

I’m sure as he gets older lack of color in toys is a thing we will encounter more. Right now it’s more just something I’m aware of. But most of the baby and toddler toys aren’t people!

Again, having books and toys that are of different colors and cultures is not the main focus. Like “Woo, checked racism off my list, my child has multicultural stuff!”, but it is a piece of the puzzle.

#3. Talking about skin tone while reading books

I recently read an article that mentioned acknowledging different colors of skin and moving on. This is very different than the way many of us were raised to “not see color”. Or if you can remember being shushed when saying something about someone’s race or appearance of their skin. Talking to toddlers about race and racism is a huge undertaking. First they need to know the words around skin tone and race.

Example: “This boy has peach colored skin, this girl has brown colored skin. Everyone has their own shade of skin color”.

I like this example and tried it while reading. My toddler said “yeah!” and then we kept reading. Short attention span – he’s 2.5 years old. It’s also at this age, that they identify with any other aspect besides color. He has also said, “this one looks like me!” while reading, and points at the black child. So something about that child reminds him of himself other than just skin color.

Skin color seems to have registered in some ways, as one day he told me he was drawing Miss Elaina. He grabbed a brown marker and said “I need the brown one because she’s brown!” and I was like wow, and I said “oh yeah, is she the one with two buns?” and he said yes! We talk to our kids about what color is the truck or what color is that bird. It makes sense that we should also mention people.

More Reading: Explaining Race vs Skin Color to a 3 Year Old – black and white vs brown and peach

#4. Talking about protests, marches or signs in terms of “fairness”

I have not taken my two year old to a march. I support the protests, and in the time of COVID, we made a decision as a family, and the impact of our decision on those close to us, that we would not attend, but show our support in other ways. This is a decision that you have to make for your own family. Here in Portland, we have seen people heading to a march with signs. We also made a Black Lives Matter sign for our house together. However, we’re not seeing marchers on a daily basis or living downtown where the protests happen. But the topic has come up some.

Example: He sees people walking with signs and masks toward a busier area of our neighborhood. And says “what are they doing?” I told him something like “they made signs just like the sign we put in our window that says ‘Black Lives Matter’, and they’re marching with them to go show other people that they feel like something isn’t fair and someone got hurt and wasn’t treated fairly.” This was way over his head I think and so I said something about like if you felt like someone wasn’t fair or nice to [his friend] you would want to go help them! And he said “Yeah!” and was excited, then wanted to see them, and then got sidetracked.

More Reading: After the fact, I came across this PDF about talking to kids under age 6 about protests. It’s much more thorough and a great example of talking to toddlers about race and protest in terms of fairness. I will try some of these in the future with him.

#5. Finding things other than skin color that you have in common with others and having uncomfortable or embarrassing conversations.

Recently our toddler has started saying loudly, “I don’t like them!” about people in the neighborhood. So far it’s been all white people. But I’m sure he’ll say it really loudly about a person of color soon. Your immediate instinct is to quiet him, but I’ve found it’s better to talk about it.

I asked him what he meant by “he doesn’t like them“, and he just repeated again, that he didn’t like them. So I said, “do you mean that you don’t like that she’s using a loud riding lawn mower in the park?”, and he said “yes, I don’t like it. It’s loud.” And I said, “yes, it is loud huh. She’s just doing her job. Just like sometimes I mow the lawn and dada mows the lawn. Then it’s done and it’s not loud anymore. But I guess our mower isn’t quite so loud”. And then he was excited to talk about the big lawn mower and we moved on.

Another time was on a walk and there was an older man watering his lawn. I think he was afraid of him because he looks a little gruff. He said “I don’t like him, I don’t want to look at him, I don’t want to say hi!”, and hid his eyes while walking by. lolol I kind of laughed and said, “We can still see you!”, teasingly. And then I said “we don’t know him, but he’s our neighbor. It looks like he’s out here watering his lawn. Just like we did earlier today with a sprinkler. Do you think he has a sprinkler too?” No. “Yeah, maybe not, maybe he just likes to use the hose, it’s fun to water things huh?” Yeah. And then I said, “well you don’t have to say hi, but I’m going to!” And then we were on to the next house.

I hope that by having these kinds of conversations audibly to others while he’s in this phase — of alternating shyness, or being afraid of some people — that he can learn that it’s ok to talk about things. And not to have shame for having said something “bad”. Aaaand hopefully also the other person can hear parts of the conversation so they know. Oh, it’s just a young child learning about life. But at some point I think I also need to find a way to talk about not hurting other people’s feelings by pointing or loudly saying something about their appearance. At the moment, I’m not sure he is at the stage to understand that. Thoughts?

#6 / Ending Thought. Raising assertive kids that stand up for themselves AND others.

I think one of the biggest things we’re teaching children in the first six years is how to be unafraid to be themselves. As they start to encounter difficult things in life, they realize that the world seems to like sameness and conformity. Raising assertive kids that stand up for themselves AND others might be one of the most important tools that we can give them to fight racism. To stand up for what’s right, even if no one else is. How to be kind and empathic, even if no one else is. To step up and say “hey, you’re my friend, I’ll play with you!” And to be curious and try to problem solve instead of giving up or giving in.

I want him to be able to be empathetic to others and their experience, even as they’re standing up for justice. They’re all so interconnected — assertiveness, resilience, kindness, curiosity, independence. So just over here trying to do my part to raising an eccentric, assertive kid, whose worth isn’t defined by others. :P

More Reading: 100 Race Conscious Things You Can Say to Your Child to Advance Racial Justice. A lot of these are also for slightly older kids, but some that younger would understand too.

And that’s what has been on my mind lately. I hope this gives you some ideas for talking to toddlers about race. If you have any resources or examples of conversations you’ve had with your kids, do share! Thank you!

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