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Too few parents and teachers are talking about race, gender and other identity traits with children often enough, which means they are missing out on critical opportunities to teach children to become tolerant of differences from an early age. That’s one of the main findings of a new report by Sesame Workshop, which surveyed 6,070 parents of children ages 3 to 12 and 1,046 teachers from preschool to fifth grade. Experts say this trend can have serious implications, because when adults don’t talk to kids about these topics, kids learn that identity is a taboo topic. They may also start to believe the stereotypes and biases they’re presented with in everyday life.

“Young kids do notice skin tone, they do notice race groups,” said Christia Spears Brown, a professor and associate chair of development and social psychology at the University of Kentucky, who has researched and written about identity development. “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 its just real meaningful difference.”

The authors of the Sesame Workshop “Identity Matters” report surveyed 6,070 parents of children. Here are some of their main findings:

  • Only 10 percent of parents discuss race often with their children.
  • A parent’s race impacts how often these conversations are happening. Twenty-two percent of black parents discuss race often with their children, compared to 6 percent of white parents.
  • Nearly 35 percent of all parents surveyed said they never talk to their children about social class.
  • Fifty-seven percent of all parents said they rarely or never talk about gender with their kids. These conversations are less likely to happen with younger children. Less than a third of parents of 3- to 5-year-old kids discuss race and ethnicity sometimes or often.

If parents aren’t having conversations about identity with their children, it’s unlikely kids will discuss these topics in classrooms, either. Although the majority of teachers surveyed for the Sesame Workshop report said they feel comfortable talking about traits like gender, race and country of origin, less than half of teachers said they think it’s appropriate to do so with their students.

“Young kids do notice skin tone, they do notice race groups.”

Brown said some adults may shy away from these conversations because they think if they bring up race they will create racist children or introduce a racial bias. Many adults also like to think that kids don’t notice these differences. But research shows kids do notice these differences and form biases, and at a surprisingly young age. One report found that by 3 months of age, a child begins to show a preference for faces of their own racial group. Brown said the preschool years are an especially opportune time to “intercept” the natural tendency to categorize objects and people based on traits, which peaks at that age. By having these discussions, adults are “tweaking that categorization process” and teaching children that differences are normal.

Here are some tips from Brown and the authors of the Sesame Workshop report on how and when to have these conversations:

  • Start early and organically: Talk about differences with infants and toddlers through organic moments during the day, such as by pointing out diversity in board books. Mention different shades of skin, hairstyles, and other forms of “variation” among humans with the goal to “normalize” human differences. With older children, parents can talk about biases and stereotypes in everyday life, such as pointing out how stores separate pink and blue toys. When children are in elementary school, parents can get into the “deeper meanings” of structural inequalities, like why people of color are not represented in social studies textbooks as much as white people.
  • Tailor your message based on the child’s identity: Black children and white children need “very different conversations around race and ethnicity” wrote Brown and her co-author, Riana Elyse Anderson, in report released earlier this year. Conversations about race should help “children in marginalized groups cope with biases” and help children in privileged groups to “dismantle that privilege.” For white parents, that could mean mentioning that nobody is following them as they shop in a store and explaining that that isn’t always the case for other racial groups. For parents of high socioeconomic status, that could mean pointing out the many privileges they have during the day, like their home and access to food.
  • Focus on media literacy: When children as young as 4- or 5-years-old are watching television and parents notice stereotypes or the absence of diversity, Brown says parent should mention that. It could be as simple as pointing out, “There are no kids that look racially different on this show being friends. It’s a shame because we know kids from different racial groups can be friends with each other. It’s a shame that the main characters are always white.”
  • Embrace the uncomfortable moments: Sometimes children bring up race at the kitchen table. Other times they bring it up loudly in the grocery checkout line when you’re just trying to get through the day without a meltdown, let alone without having a crowd of strangers watch you tackle a conversation about someone’s identity. But Brown said those awkward, uncomfortable moments should be embraced and adults should remember the goal of the situation is to deemphasize that talking about race is a bad thing. “The only way we can improve attitude is through honest discussion,” Brown said. “I don’t want to teach kids it’s a taboo topic, so I need to not be taboo in the grocery store.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

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