I teach my kids to love everyone.
We don’t see color in our house.
My child is too young and innocent to discuss issues of inequity and injustice.
I’ve heard it over and over and over again, always from white, cisgender, straight women who would rather shield their children from reality than help them understand it. Sometimes it starts out innocuous, like the first statement – I teach my kids to love everyone. Dig deeper and the conversation almost always goes to a place where fragility, privilege, and white supremacy rule the minds of these mothers. It’s ok to not know what to say or where to start, but it’s not ok to say these things without considering their impact on other communities
It’s important to recognize that these statements, or statements like them, are in and of themselves an expression of privilege. People in marginalized groups don’t have the option to “not see color,” or just “love everybody,” because that’s not how the world treats them. Ask a black mother how she talks to her son about racial identity, or a gay dad about how he explains different kinds of families to his daughter, and you’ll see what I mean.
I heard once somewhere that it’s not a parent’s job to make the world better for our kids, but to help our kids to make a better world. For me this means working every day, month, and year of my children’s lives to help heal the systematic inequities that are built into every facet of our society. These wounds are deep, multi-generational, and wide open. So where do we start? The great news is that having kids is a wonderful opportunity to help create positive change.
The first step to helping our kids understand privilege and identity is letting them acknowledge difference. The fact that some people have two moms and others have a mom and a dad is not the problem. One clerk at the grocery store being black and the other being white is not the problem. The problem arises with the associations and judgements we make based on these differences. If we fail to consciously acknowledge difference, how can we reshape the associations we make with it?
So when your kid notices difference, don’t shush him. Don’t discourage basic observation. Instead, reply in ways that will help to shape your child’s understanding of what that difference means. Yes, that clerk is black, just like your friend John at school. You’re right, her hair is very different from yours, that’s interesting. I think her hair is nice.
Parents of color have to teach their children from a very early age that the powers that be see them as problematic before they even open their mouths. Is it then so much to ask that I as a white mother teach my child that he’s seen as “normal” and “good” before he opens his? This privilege, while inherently unfair, carries responsibility.
My son is two, so I haven’t expressly talked to him about privilege. However, I’m intentional about priming him for it in developmentally appropriate ways. We read stories that evoke the concept of fairness, which I think kids begin to understand quite well by the time they reach kindergarten. When he’s struggling with sharing, we also bring up fairness. Your friend is playing with that right now and it’s a super cool toy, is it fair to him to take it out of his hands before he’s done? A flexible understanding of fairness is key to developing empathy in kids, and can be a great springboard for discussing privilege as they get older.
When kids build a strong sense of self, they’re much more likely to be accepting of others. Who are you? How do you feel in different situations? How might someone else feel differently? We help our children be secure in themselves simply by creating space for them to share themselves. Without judgement. This again, is about developing a sense of empathy. One important note is that empathy cannot be forced. You know this if you’ve ever tried to force a child to apologize for something. When they don’t understand what they did wrong, or are still too emotional to figure it out, apologies are empty. Empathy takes time, patience, and constant modeling.
We all want our kids to feel secure, loved, and happy, and it’s ok if you don’t know where to start when talking to children about the harsh realities of the world that we need them to face and fix – ask a friend! Ask me! Because we have to commit to doing it together.