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So you’re in the supermarket, waiting in the checkout line. Your 3-year-old is rambling off about the day’s happenings, doing her very best to gnaw your ear completely off. Suddenly, pointing very non-discretely at another shopper in the checkout line, she blurts out: “Mommy, mommy, look at how dark that man’s face is! Why is he burnt like that?” If you’re the embarrassed parent in this situation, do you…

A) Smile and nod your head
B) Coyly look around and say, “Whose child is this?”
C) Scold the kid
D) Scramble away like a burglar fleeing the scene of a crime
E) Acknowledge your daughter’s comment and respond with a teachable moment.
F) Apologize and tell the man the story of how your child was adopted from an evil orphanage where she spent her time living with feral wolves, which is why she has no manners.

C and D are common responses by unprepared parents, while I’m sure many in such a moment would secretly wish to do B or F. The proper answer, of course, is E: Turn this into a teachable moment.

Parents often go out of their way to avoid even so much as the mention of racial differences, especially in public situations. But this approach is actually more harmful than helpful. In the same way that a parent’s nervous insistence on having their children go clothed at all times inevitably serves to reinforce the idea that their body is bad, this tendency to act embarrassed and mortified over a child’s mention of racial differences reinforces the idea that the topic is something shameful, taboo and embarrassing. Henceforth, if discussing skin color is shameful, then having a certain skin color must be a source of shame or embarrassment. “After a while, kids pick up on this message,” says Sam Sommers, Ph.D.

How to respond when a child makes comments about race or appearance

If your child hasn’t presented you such a situation yet, there’s a good chance one of them will in the future. So it’s important to be prepared and know how to respond ahead of time:

What parents should NOT do:

  • Do not get defensive or scold the child
  • Do not make a comment that implies noticing differences equates to racism, such as “Did I raise you to talk like that?”
  • Don’t shame your child into silence or make them feel bad/embarrassed about their comment.

Instead, turn this into a teachable moment:

  • “Yes, he does have darker skin, but pointing isn’t polite. Can you try waving to him instead or saying ‘hello’?”
  • “Yes, he does, and you have a pinkish tone. Isn’t it wonderful that people come in so many different varieties?”

You should deflect the issue by pointing out that they, too, have a unique skin color and a unique appearance that is all their own. Then you should find ways to point out how wonderful it is to have variety in this world, and that variety in people is just as beautiful as variety in flowers or different flavors of ice cream.

“Teaching our kids to avoid race at the store also teaches them to be blind to real differences in other walks of life,” says Sommers. We don’t want our kids to be color blind, just color indifferent.

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