Story at a glance

  • Parents are often reluctant to discuss race with their kids, but they learn about it through their daily experiences.
  • About one-third of early childhood to fifth grade teachers report that a student in their classroom has heard a negative comment about their identity at least once this school year.
  • “The only way we can improve attitude is through honest discussion,” says one expert.

More than 60 percent of teachers say they are comfortable talking to their students about countries of origin, race and ethnicity, according to a new report by Sesame Workshop. But the same report says only 10 percent of parents talk often with their children about their race or ethnicity. 

Why are parents so reluctant?

Parents might like to believe their child's race or ethnicity is not important to who they are. The report found that when parents were asked to describe their own child's identity, most parents mentioned their personality, but only two percent of parents mentioned their child's race and ethnicity. 

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Parents might also think their children don't notice differences at a young age. The report says less than 50 percent of parents think that their children are very aware of their race and ethnicity. And parents talk to their children about race and ethnicity more often as they get older. 

But children do notice. About one-third of early childhood to fifth grade teachers report that a student in their classroom has heard a negative comment about their identity at least once this school year, according to the report. Most of the time, it was about their race, ethnicity or gender. 

Christia Spears Brown, a professor and associate chair of development and social psychology at the University of Kentucky, worked on the report. “Young kids do notice skin tone, they do notice race groups,” Brown told the Hechinger Report. “We also live in a segregated society…We know kids notice that and if parents don’t help them have an explanation that navigates the bias, kids will just absorb it as it’s just real meaningful difference.”

So how should parents talk to their children?

Parents’ race informs how often they talk to their children about race and ethnicity, the report found. Twenty-two percent of black parents discuss race often with their children, compared to six percent of white parents. One suggestion Brown and other authors of the report gave the Hechinger Report was to tailor your message based on the child’s identity. 

Other suggestions include starting early and organically, focusing on media literacy and embracing the uncomfortable moments. Be prepared to talk to children about race and ethnicity at any time and anywhere — even the grocery checkout line. 

“The only way we can improve attitude is through honest discussion,” Brown told the Hechinger Report. “I don’t want to teach kids it’s a taboo topic, so I need to not be taboo in the grocery store.”

Published on Nov 15, 2019