Kids are curious and observant. By the time they reach preschool, kids notice physical differences including differences in skin color, eye shape, and hair texture. Though they might not have the vocabulary to express or unpack it, they will begin noticing differences in how people are treated, talked about, and portrayed based on those characteristics. These observations are not inherently bad—kids’ brains are wired to take in information, find patterns, categorize, and draw conclusions about the world around them.
Despite what we might like to believe, research shows that kids are not “colorblind.” In fact, they become aware of race from a young age. Studies show that three to five-year-olds consistently used racial categories to identify themselves and others, and to include and exclude children from activities. Other research found that kids of color as young as five are cognizant of negative stereotypes about their racial group. Given these findings, it’s never too early to talk to kids about race at a developmentally appropriate level. By having open and honest conversations about race and relaying accurate and anti-racist information, you can help disrupt stereotypes and discrimination and build inclusive, empowered kids.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when broaching the topic of race with your troop or other kids in your life.
Kids Will Have Questions
When kids inevitably ask questions or start discussing race, don’t hush them or discourage the conversation by saying “That’s not polite!” When kids are told to be quiet, they learn that the topic of race is taboo or that they did something wrong by asking a question. When their questions are unanswered, they don’t go away. Instead, kids may try to fill in the blanks themselves, using sources like the internet, movies, and peers—all of which can be problematic, incomplete, and biased.
So, answer the questions, even the tough ones. If you’re able to, stop what you’re doing and have an in-depth conversation. If not, acknowledge the question, and discuss it later. By taking the time to have the conversation, you show kids the importance of critical thinking and open the space for future dialogue.
What if Something Harmful is Said?
If a child says something harmful directed at another person or group, be direct about why it was problematic. Instead of stating, “That’s not nice!” explain, “It is hurtful and wrong to say that someone can or can’t do something because of their race,” and then follow up with a question like, “How would you feel if someone said that to you?” Or, “Why do you think that comment might be hurtful?” Kids also internalize ideas about their own race from a young age, so make sure to follow up on comments like, “I wish I had white skin like you,” or “I get to be the teacher because teachers are white!” with questions and correction, if necessary.
Remember that kids are still learning, and hurtful comments, especially those made by young kids, may be based on observation and not made with malice (in the last example for instance, maybe all the teachers they know are white). Make a point to introduce a counter-narrative like reading a book about an influential teacher of color and continue to follow up later. Biases aren’t formed in a day, and they can’t be undone that quickly either.
Link History to Present Day
When kids learn about race, it’s often in the context of the Civil Rights movement or other historic events that, in their frame of reference, were so long ago. Talk about current fights for equity, representation, and justice and how they are connected to what they might have learned in history class. Bring your troop to a meeting, movie, or presentation on an issue you’re learning about so they can see what local leaders are working on.
Include an age-appropriate amount of detail. Daisies might focus on celebrating differences, Cadettes can discuss implicit bias, while knowledgeable Ambassadors can advocate for racial justice.
Exposure is Not a Substitute for Education, but it can Serve as a Jumping Point
A common misconception is that if kids are exposed to racial and ethnic diversity, they will automatically be more inclusive. Exposure alone will not make kids more racially conscious. However, when paired with conversation and reflection, and experiences like attending a racially diverse school or going to events of a variety of cultural backgrounds, can help spark constructive learning.
It is also important for kids to see a wide variety of races and ethnicities represented in books, movies, history class, and in real-life leaders they observe—this kind of exposure gives kids real reference points to counteract negative stereotypes.
These Conversations Often Aren’t Optional for Parents of Color
Talking about race might be new territory for some parents and troop leaders, but it’s important to keep in mind that some parents have been talking to their kids about race practically since they were born—often out of necessity and concern for safety. You may notice that kids of color are more in tune to race than white kids, especially in situations where kids of color are in the minority. Make sure that any programming or conversations meet all kids where they are at and aren’t just geared toward the majority. Never single out a child of color to answer a question or speak for their entire racial group—make space for sharing, but never expect one child to “teach” the rest of the group through their personal experiences or knowledge.
Race is a big topic with complex roots and broad reach, and one that can be difficult to broach. The good news is, talking about race is a skill that can be developed and strengthened with intentional practice. There are many resources out there: online, in books, and in-person through local organizations like the YWCA. Girl Scouts River Valleys also created a new Diverse. Inclusive. Together. patch to begin (Or continue!) the conversation with your troop. As Girl Scouts, we’re tasked with making the world a better place. By talking about race and developing the tools for anti-bias education, we can do just that.
McKayla Murphy – McKayla is a program resources specialist at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and a minor in dance. McKayla is passionate about racial equity, critical media studies, and art education. She enjoys dancing, trying new food, and seeking adventure (including winter camping and travel). Staples in McKayla’s life include dark chocolate, her hammock, and plenty of reading material.