Expert Q&A

Derald Wing Sue, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Melanie Killen, professor of human development at the University of Maryland, answer questions about parenting, preschoolers and prejudice.

What behaviors can parents expect to see with regard to preschoolers and their awareness of difference?

Sue: We know children begin to notice racial and ethnic differences in particular between the ages of 3 and 5. This brings about a naive curiosity that isn't yet linked to any positive or negative qualities about different groups of people. What happens after that is that positive and negative qualities do come into the picture, conveyed to children through their parents, significant others and the mass media.

Killen: Generally, kids become aware of gender very early. They are starting to notice what they are and [what] other people are and whether they should be treated differently. Initially, this is based mostly on physical appearance, as they are learning what marks you for being a boy or girl. They might ask, "Is she a girl? She has short hair." Or, "Is he a boy? He's playing with a doll."

Then, later, around 4, race begins to come up, when kids become curious about things like skin color. A lot of times, this is more of an issue for white majority kids who might not be coming into contact with people of color that much where they are, so for them, it's more unusual. It's very common for them to ask parents questions in public like, "Why is her skin brown?"

It's not quite the same for minority kids - it's not the same shock because they see people from the majority population all the time. Mostly, they aren't remarking or asking questions about it in public as much, but they do start to pick up on preferential treatment based on race and ethnicity around this time.

What are some common mistakes or missteps that parents make when teaching preschoolers about difference or responding to preschoolers´ questions about difference?

Sue: Many parents talk to their children about embracing difference, but in subtle, covert ways, they communicate something very different. For example, when approaching a group of black youngsters, a mother may unconsciously pull the child nearer to her. Also, many white parents often talk to kids about the evils of prejudice and discrimination, yet in their owns lives they have few friends or neighbors of color with whom they regularly socialize. These implicit communications are more powerful than any intentional efforts on the part of parents.

Killen: Parents sometimes get overly embarrassed or self-defensive [with] kids' questions about difference, especially when those questions are asked in a public way. Parents should ... treat them as honest inquiries, explain it to them like a scientific question and try not to see them as a bad thing, because these questions are very natural. If a child asks a question about someone's brown skin and the parent gets defensive or embarrassed or tries to brush the question aside, that child starts to associate that and think, "Is there something bad about brown skin?"

Parents of preschoolers seem to be well-informed about things like choosing a safe booster seat for the car or the importance of getting their youngsters to eat the proper foods. How can parents become better informed about the importance of fostering an early appreciation for diversity?

Sue: For parents who want children to be good, decent and moral individuals who believe in our democracy, the time for intervention is early. Whether we are talking about race, gender or any kind of differences, no matter what words you use, inclusion has to be a part of the conversation early on.

Killen: A lot of parents seem to think that teaching kids to appreciate difference is something that's nice if you do it, but then it doesn't really matter if you don't do it.

I think the No. 1 thing is to connect it to academic achievement, to make the connection for parents that kids who are better prepared to get along with others are going to do better in school. It's important that kids learn how to get along because they will have to interact with different groups of people in school, and if not school, then ultimately in the workplace one day.

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More