Discussing Race with My Toddler: 3 1/2 Baby Steps

On this Martin Luther King, Jr Day, and after a conversation I had with some narrow minds over the holidays, I’m venturing into discussing race with my toddler. I’ll make it as digestible and relatable with 3 short lessons.

Or make that 3 1/2.

  1. Have empathy for people who feel down-trodden
  2. Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
  3. Racial issues are more about socio-economics than skin color.
    1. Except it IS about skin color, so realize that and fix it.

So here’s a 3-part conversation (that I *might* have imagined) with my 3yo:

Part 1: Empathy for those feeling harassed and down-trodden

Son, if I were a perfect (or just better) daddy, I’d address all your tears with “I understand you’re frustrated that your brother stole your train. But you can’t body-slam him to the floor.” I admit I often roll my eyes and give YOU time-outs for your “brutality”.

But he took my train!

That’s right buddy. He was the aggressor. Doesn’t it make you mad that I gave YOU the time out? But, wait.

Can I have a cheese stick?

Okay, here. So back to this: you know how I’m always telling you to take your shoes off, and wash your hands? I tell friends you’re a demanding emperor. But really I’m the tyrant barking orders at you all day long. And sometimes you say, “No, Daddy! You’re not going to tell me to share my trains!”

Daddy! Sometimes I don’t want to share.

I get that, buddy. (Speed this up, pops. Make discussing race with my toddler a meaningful experience…) And when you tell me not to watch you as you’re hiding behind the couch to intentionally poop your pants, isn’t that frustrating? Doesn’t it make you angry to have anyone look at you suspiciously? Like you’ve done something wrong? (Pooping isn’t wrong, son.)

See? It’s frustrating to feel constantly harassed or have your stuff taken. And imagine having people stare at you suspiciously all day long. That would be sad.

You’re allowed to be frustrated. You deserve to speak out.

When you see people of all skin colors protesting in the streets, it’s because they’re frustrated that someone took their things or looks at them suspiciously or treats them unfairly.

I hope you might ask why they’re marching. Their feelings are important. Just like yours are.

(You still can’t tackle your brother or avoid washing your hands. In New York you wash your hands before going to the bathroom.)

Part 2: Don’t stigmatize an entire population

Son, sometimes you say “I don’t like kids at school!” And why is that?

That’s why(*) that boy pushes me and always takes Percy**.

But that’s just the actions of one little boy. It’s not the actions of everyone. See? You can’t blame everyone for the actions of one. Like, buddy, when you say ‘I don’t like green food’ but it’s really that you don’t like peas, right?

No! I don’t want peas for lunch!

Right. But you can’t stigmatize*** an entire group because of one thing. It goes for vegetables and people. Do you understand?

Yes.

What do you think?

Um. I don’t know.

Okay. Well, we will not lump things together in this house. You don’t say ‘those people’, you don’t say, ‘I don’t like greens’ and you don’t…

Daddy? Can I watch Frozen?

Part 3. Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.

Son, racial issues are very often socioeconomic issues.

What’s soss-eponomis?

I’m glad you asked. (High five, pop. Discussing race with my toddler has already expanded into the socioeconomic factors and he is INTO it.) Poor people are often driven to make some bad choices to survive in our country. But they aren’t making bad decisions because of their skin color, rather it’s because they want to have what you have: food, warmth, a few toys. It’s not because of skin color, it’s because of money. You understand?

Uh-huh.

But because of the actions of a few desperate people, an entire population is found guilty. And that’s wrong.

Daddy? Can we play trains, now?

(You’re losing him! You’re losing him, pops!) One second, buddy. I’m on a roll. Here’s part 3 ½: The system is stacked against poor people. Some kids don’t do well in school, but it’s not because of their skin color. It’s because of a whole host of reasons: they have underfunded schools, they didn’t eat breakfast, no one read to them like I read to you.

Daddy? Can you stop talking? Pleeease?

Buddy, I just need to finish this one point: I said it’s not about skin color and yet it IS about skin color, because in our country many people are afraid, so very, very afraid of anything that’s “other”. And that “other” is a different skin color. And because of their fear, they hate.

Daddy? (He over-dramatically rolls his eyes with annoyance at me.)

And hate always comes from fear.

So anyway, buddy, some people hate people with different colors just because of their color. So they’re treated differently and not given privileges and not respected. And some kids drop out of school because they don’t have support at their house to strive for greater academic achievement, but that doesn’t have to do with their skin color.

He starts singing “Let it Go” and tuning me out.

Some parents can’t give successful tools to their kids, but that’s unrelated to their skin color. They never had those tools in the first place (because other people were afraid of them and hated them), and because they weren’t born into a lucky position with support and resources (and a different skin color), this vicious cycle of racism and socioeconomic disparity cycles through several generations. It started with fear of “otherness” and skin color and then it becomes about economics. But they’re people just like you and me.

He walks away from me. I pursue.

Buddy, you cannot make blank statements about groups of people and you cannot discount how people feel. But you can empathize and ask why and you can seek to understand the world through their eyes.

Daddy? Stop talking. You play with green trains. I don’t like them. They’re green. I want the purple trains.

And you can always talk with me and ask questions about these topics. Because discussing race with my toddler is something we should do. A lot.

Give me my train.

I’m glad we had this discussion.

* My son says “that’s why” in place of “because”. I hope he never changes.

**   Percy = Friend of Thomas.

*** You don’t know what stigmatize means? What are they TEACHING you at that preschool?