Dear Dr. Debbie,
We owe much to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and my husband and I are striving to live lives of righteousness. I know things are generally moving in the right direction regarding “race relations,” for example, my husband’s family accepts me for my lighter skin and European ancestry, and my family totally accepts him with his darker complexion and Afro-Caribbean heritage. Among our colleagues and friends, skin color hardly ever comes up as an issue. How can we assure that our daughter — who at 18 months is a beautiful tone of her own somewhere in between us — will continue in this path?
Comfortable in My Skin
Don’t miss last week’s column The when-Mom-says-no-ask-Dad loophole — Good Parenting
I once read that the history of the United States is the history of race relations. White Europeans overtook the lands of the red Native Americans. Black Africans suffered in an economic system based on their enslavement. Yellow Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated for that reason alone during WWII. Brown Latin Americans face harassment over basic rights for their families today. Color biases are played out daily in interactions that can range from unconscious discrimination to hate-filled violence. The future of the United States may certainly depend on us moving past separations by skin color.
Understanding the history of our ancestors helps us to understand ourselves, our families and our neighbors. A worthy objective is for children to be comfortable with skin color differences so that as they mature, they can better understand the past and make positive strides toward a future without prejudice.
Make skin color a topic of conversation and investigation for your daughter. Among your immediate family, you have the chance to compare your different skin tones. The extended family provides even more variety for comparisons. You can admire the range of colors among those present by putting everyone’s hands next to each other.
Look for colors in nature. Rocks, moss, sea shells, bird feathers, turtle shells, flower petals and the clouds in the sky exhibit a beautiful array of differences. Human beings are, after all, part of nature. Explain skin color differences as she gets a little older with the history of human migration. Darker skin protects against the harmful rays of the sun, and lighter skin allows for more absorption of Vitamin D where the sun’s rays are not as strong. People living closer to the equator, before Christopher Columbus opened the way for widespread immigration to America, evolved (over eons) to have more melanin in their skin, and those further away had less. As people have rapidly spread across the globe since 1492, we no longer look like everyone else in our villages.
Respond promptly to her questions. If possible, answer questions as soon as she asks them. If you ignore questions, she may decide that there is something wrong about the question or the person the question concerns. Children learn not to ask questions that make people uncomfortable which can lead to a prejudice based on uncorrected misconceptions and their limited experiences.
Give simple answers. Answers should be simple and relate to a child’s experience and level of development. If a child asks, “Why is that man so dark?” you can say simply, “He is dark because has dark skinned ancestors.”
Introduce differences through books. It can be less threatening to meet people who are different in a book. Introduce children to differences in: ethnicity, family composition, economic levels, physical and intellectual abilities, age, etc. Issues surrounding differences can be discussed in terms of the characters in the book. Then you can broaden the discussion to include people they know or have seen in the community. Here are some suggestions of books for toddlers and preschoolers: “The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz, “Shades of Black” by Sandra Pinkney, “Colors of Me” by Brynne Barnes, “Shades of People” by Shelley Rotner, “Skin Again” by bell hooks, and my personal favorite, “The Skin You Live In” by Michael Tyler. You will find brief reviews of some of these and a few others at Ten Books to Talk about Skin Color.
It is important for adults to be sensitive to the unasked questions as well. If you sense that your child is confused or uneasy, try to verbalize those feelings for her. Get feelings out in the open so you can talk about them.
Remember, though, that actions speak louder than words. Our actions shape the values that children learn as they encounter the people in their world. If we don’t act, they will learn by default the messages that are magnified in the media. And we’ll find ourselves perpetuating ideas that we really do not want to pass on to our children.
The message you give your daughter is that it’s more important to value each other’s self-identity, ideas and feelings than to be hampered by our surface differences.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com