Parental Lessons About Race Should Be Taught at Home in Early Childhood

“The Talk” is the conversation parents have with their children about the dangers of being Black in America. This important lesson needs to start in the early childhood years.

A mural in Philadelphia. (Frédéric Soltan / Corbis via Getty Images)

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Recent polling data shows most voters want Black studies curriculum and the legacy of slavery taught in K-12 public schools, according to the Black Education Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. But lawmakers across the U.S. have veered sharply in the opposite direction, waging a crusade to ban talks of race in American classrooms.

  • At the state level, at least seven states have passed legislation aimed at restricting teachers’ discussions of race and Black history.
  • At the national level, three Republican senators reintroduced The Protect Equality and Civics Education (PEACE) Act just this month, which aims to prohibit federal funding to those schools who teach concepts of critical race theory.

While having conversations with kids about race can be difficult and painful, it is deeply important for Black children to learn how the history of inequalities for Black Americans continues today. And if students aren’t going to get it in school—due to legislative muzzling—it must happen at home.

Mourners at a funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Birmingham, Alabama, late September, 1963. (Burton McNeely / Getty Images)

“The Talk” is the conversation Black parents have with their children about the dangers of being Black in America.

Parents tend to feel most comfortable engaging in conversations around race when their children are 9 or 10, studies show—at least four years past the moment children begin to understand the complexities of race, according to a study on delayed conversations about race.

The delayed conversations’ study showed parents were found to consistently underestimate children’s ability to process complex conversations of race, despite research showing children have had experiences based on race as early as 3 months old. (Parents went as far as to redirect race conversations or take a color-blind stance by chastising their children saying, for example, “It’s not nice to talk about Susie’s skin color,” or “We are all the same inside.”)

Some parents reported they believed starting “The Talk” at a young age could be detrimental: However, not discussing race-based experiences may be more detrimental than perceived challenges of having this conversation with young children—as we can see from the lack of growth in racial justice, continuing encounters with racism, and the systematic threat of removing Black history from schools.

This important lesson needs to start in the early childhood years—before the age of 8. The rapid growth and plasticity of brain development at this early stage of life allows children to take in and understand complex information such as racial pride, coping mechanisms and equity.

The best example of the impact of race on young children is the famous 1947 doll study, where young Black children disproportionately chose white dolls over dolls of their same skin color, calling the Black dolls ugly and bad. The children in this study had already internalized negative interactions from race at a young age without any prompting or conversations.

Seventy-seven years after the doll study and 60 years after the March on Washington, the impact of racism on the lives of Black Americans is still significant.

  • Black people earn 20 percent less than their counterparts have higher student debt loans compared to all races, according to a report published by The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
  • Black unemployment rates are two times higher than for white people.
  • One in three Black children lives in poverty, compared to one in 10 white children.

These statistics force Black parents to impart the harsh realities of history and current state of life for people of color on their children to ensure survival.

First Steps for Parents to Start ‘The Talk’

As an early childhood career path instructor and in my research on racial socialization, I have worked with many parents and children about issues involving race and other elements of child development. Here are some first steps I’ve learned that can help parents begin lessons about race, even before children are in school:

  1. Explicitly teach children their race, and make sure they are able to express this just as firmly as they can express their given name.
  2. Equip children with at least five attributes from role models that are special and/or significant within their race, and make it relatable to the attributes they possess.
  3. Just as you would never think about not teaching a child to look both ways before they cross the street, prepare children for common safety issues they may encounter because of their race so they are better prepared to recognize negative interactions based on race at face value.

These three steps and conversations can be used consistently and regularly throughout the years as your child grows and matures, so too will new role models and safety issues will become relevant for the moment in time.

“The Talk” is yours to have; let the lessons begin.

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Nicole Y. Culliver, Ph.D., is an early childhood career path instructor for the East Cleveland City School District and author of The Red Imagination Bag, a book about play among poverty. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project in partnership with the National Black Child Development Institute.