Nurture Shock: Chapter 3 – Why White Parents Don't Talk about Race

I found this particular chapter from Nurture Shock particularly enlightening.  We’ve never had any issues with Gavin reacting to the colour of an individual’s skin until he started going to school.  I thought it quite odd because we’ve always tried to be very careful about things we say regarding race in front of Gavin.  It also seemed strange that he should suddenly develop a dislike towards another individual due to skin colour because he has never displayed this prejudice before.  Our maid has dark skin and so do a number of the waiters at his favourite restaurants that he appears to be quite fond of.  So, to be told by the teacher that Gavin appears to be discriminating against other children with darker skin was a real surprise to me.

For so long, we’ve all naturally assumed that children are “colour blind” when it comes to racial differences.  We assume that if we bring up the topic of race, we might be inadvertently drawing their attention to the differences between people of different ethnic backgrounds.  We also incorrectly assume that by saying nothing, we will avoid corrupting a child’s pure view of the world that everyone is the same.

It all became clear when I read Chapter 3 of Nurture Shock.  It appears that children have an inherent tendency to discriminate against other individuals who are different from them.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be skin colour differences.  It can be any difference they pick up which can be a source for discrimination.  It has to do with the search of identity and the assumption that people who are similar on the exterior are also more likely to be similar on the inside.  That is, they are more likely to enjoy the same things.

One study that made this evident was when they took a class and divided them into two groups.  One group wore red shirts and the other wore blue shirts.  No mention was ever made to the colour of the shirts they wore.  There were no competitions, nor segregation and during play time, the red and blue shirts were free to intermingle as they desired.

After a while, the examiner questioned both red and blue shirts.  When the red shirts were asked who was more likely to be nice, they answered the red shirts.  When the red shirts were asked who was more likely to be mean, they answered the blue shirts.  Likewise, when the blue shirts were asked who was more likely to win a competition, they answered the blue shirts.  Despite there being no references made to the difference in shirt colour, the children instinctively picked up on it and made their own assumptions based on that external difference.

Similarly, the same thing happens with race.  Because we are so conscious about being politically correct, we have taken it to the extremes and avoided talking about race to our children.  Yet, studies are showing that this is the wrong tack to take with a child who doesn’t understand why there are differences.  If left to their own devices, they will form their own opinions about the differences unless we educate them.

Therefore, if we want to raise children who are better able to accept racial differences, we need to talk about those differences.  Just as we discuss the differences between boys and girls, we need to be able to discuss the differences in skin colour and the fact that we’re all the same underneath.

It isn’t enough to simply make vague statements that everyone is the same.  A child simply cannot understand such broad, sweeping statements. The discussion needs to be very specific – to the point that it sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable talking about it.  Yet, if we want our children to accept other people from other races, we need to talk about it and explore our children’s feelings about it.

Another thing that Bronson and Merryman discovered was that children were beginning to form their own opinions about racial differences from as early as 3 years old.  At this age, most parents aren’t even aware of the need to discuss race.  By the time parents bring up the topic, a child has already formed so many internal ideas about race that it is much harder to correct prejudices.

After hearing that, I started becoming more specific with Gavin and his apparent dislike for a boy with darker skin at school.  Previously, I would have hesitated to call Gavin’s attention to the boy’s skin colour in the fear that I would create an issue of race rather than disarm it.  I honestly don’t know how we’re progressing, but judging from everything else I am trying to teach him, it appears that there will have to be constant repetition before the message reaches home.

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Nurture Shock: Chapter 3 – Why White Parents Don't Talk about Race

  1. What you have shared is interesting and bears looking into. However, I can’t help but wonder if you realize the only people of “dark” skin that Gavin is so fond of are in positions of servitude. I sincerely hope that while you are having race discussions with your child that you will be sure to explain that people of color are doctors, engineers, attorneys, school teachers even presidents as well as maids and waiters.

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  2. Hey Kim – Actually, after I wrote this post, I noticed that his prejudice was only with the boy in his class. He seemed to be okay with his teachers who were dark-skinned.

    Great point about the careers aspect, though. I think we’re doing ok now. Gavin’s overcome his prejudice against the dark-skinned boy at school and is now best friends with another child who also has dark-skin.

    I’m glad I read Nurture Shock when I did because I probably wouldn’t have addressed this issue appropriately based on what I thought was the right way to go about it.

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