Nurture Shock: Chapter 3

{This is the third in a series. Click here to read more.}

Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race


Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.
Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.
Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

I love this song from Into the Woods. In the finale, a rag-tag group of fairy tale characters explains what they have learned from their time in the woods, and the Witch (Bernadette Peters originated the role on Broadway) croons the show’s moral: Be careful what you pass on to your children.

In chapter three of Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman tackle the topic of race and our presumption that young children are “color-blind” when it comes to racial differences. In an increasingly multi-cultural world, most white parents (according to the research) ignore the subject of race, attempting to raise their children in a society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Parents, aware of our country’s history of racism, are careful not to pass that legacy down to their children.

Apparently, they are being too careful.

The authors open with a study Birgitte Vittrup conducted for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas in Austin. Interested in what effect, if any, conversations about racial differences between white parents and their children (ages 5 to 7) had on the children’s attitudes about black people, Vittrup gave each child in the study a Racial Attitude Measure test and then assigned the child to one of three groups.

The first group of children watched multicultural videos like Sesame Street and Little Bill in which black characters were prominently featured in positive roles. The second group of children watched the videos, and Vittrup instructed their parents to initiate conversations about interracial friendships using a checklist of topics that reinforced the concepts in the videos. The third group of children did not watch the videos, but their parents were supposed to bring up the topic of race on their own (they, too, had a copy of the checklist.)

After the children watched the videos and/or talked with their parents about race, Vittrup administered the Racial Attitude Measure again. Confirming earlier research, Vittrup found that the children in the first group, those who watched the videos without any parental reinforcement and conversation, did not improve their scores from the first test. The message in the videos – that people of all races can get along, help each other, and be friends – didn’t affect the children at all.

Vittrup expected to find improved attitudes in the children in groups two and three, due to conversations with their parents. Vittrup had instructed the parents to address the topic of race explicitly, saying things like, “Some people on TV or at school have different skin color than [we do]” and “If a child of a different skin color lived in our neighborhood, would you like to be his friend?” To her surprise, the children in these groups didn’t improve their racial attitudes either!

Hoping to salvage her Ph.D, Vittrup poured over the families’ study diaries, looking for anything that would explain the unexpected data. She found somethng that surprised her: when the parents were asked to rate the meaningfulness of the conversations they were having with their children, most parents reported that they hardly used the checklist at all, preferring to talk about race in more general terms, telling their children things like “Everybody’s equal” or “We can all be friends.” Most of the parents did not mention skin color or race, nor did they assign language to differences in people (“the people in this family are black” or “these children are Hispanic”). The children did not associate general “we like everybody” platitudes with positive feelings about people of other races. Only six families who were told to talk openly about interracial friendship did so, and all six of those children greatly improved their racial attitudes.

The parents who participated in the study had good intentions: they thought if they didn’t point out differences in people’s skin color, their children would not develop biases against anyone belonging to a paticular racial group. Uncomfortable talking openly about race, these parents figured their children would just figure it out – no one is better or worse because of the color of his/her skin.

{Interestingly, this “not talking about race” is not widespread among the races. A 2007 study of 17,000 American families reported that 45% said they never, or almost never, discussed race issues with their children. That was 45% of families of all ethnicities. When broken down by race, “nonwhite parents are three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75% of [white parents] never, or almost never, talk about race.”}

Other research shows that children sort themselves into groups at an early age, strongly identifying with others whom they perceive are like them. Bronson and Merryman reported that:

  • children who wore red or blue t-shirts in class for three weeks preferred other children from their group, even though their teacher never said anything positive or negative about “reds” or “blues” and the children were never grouped according to their t-shirt colors
  • in a longitudinal study of 100 black children and 100 white children in Colorado, 68% of  6-year-old children used race to sort pictures of people, when told they could sort the cards any way they wanted (16% sorted according to gender and the other 16% sorted according to other factors like age or facial expressions)
  • first graders worked in racially mixed groups twice a week for eight weeks; researchers observed the children on the playground during the eight weeks and recorded high incidences of cross-race play; in third graders, racially mixed work groups had no effect on with whom the children played at recess

In their discussion of middle and high school students, the authors found that:

  • when students in Lynn, Massachusetts, a successfully integrated school district, were polled about whether they would like to live in a racially diverse neighborhood when they grew up, 70% of the nonwhite students said they would; only 35% of the white students answered “yes”
  • 56 years after Brown v. Board of Education, only 8% of white high-schoolers in America have a best friend of another race, 85% of black students’ best friends are also black
  • most cross-racial friendships in high school are based on a single activity (sports, student council, glee club :)) rather than multiple activities and tend to be lost over time
  • because children tend to self-identify with those who look like them, integrated schools are less likely to engender interracial friendships as students gravitate toward others of their same race

Bronson and Merryman speculate that this modern-day segregation is a result of what they call Diverse Environment Theory. The feeling is that if we raise our children in an environment with a fair amount of exposure to people of all races and cultures, the environment will speak for itself : see, honey, people of all races, ethnicities, and religions can be anything they want! Look, we even have an African American president!

But the problem is that we (and by “we”, I mean white parents and teachers) don’t actually say that. We think that our children will look around them and deduce this lesson. But, as Bronson and Merryman point out, children don’t simply soak up the racial equality message. We must engage them in conversations explicitly centered on racial and ethnic differences, guiding them to the understanding that while skin color does make us look different from each other, it doesn’t set us apart in ways that matter – thoughtfulness, kindness, compassion, and the desire for healthy, happy lives.

Most years I read several good books to my class that spark genuine, dynanic conversations about race relations in America. Among my favorites are The Other Side and Teammates. Both books offer my students and me ways to talk not only about interracial friendships, but also about themes like perseverance, courage, and loyalty. I skipped reading those books this year, thinking it wouldn’t matter, that my students would “get the lessons” from somewhere else.

Now I understand it really is up to me, and I won’t forego this important facet of their second grade education again.

{BTW, Bronson and Merryman simply report the research – they don’t offer any suggestions about how to talk to your children about race. Maybe that’s a subject for another book – or another blog post!}

2 thoughts on “Nurture Shock: Chapter 3

  1. Great post! Thanks for pointing me to this. I just read that part of Nurture Shock (still working on the rest), and we just had a workshop at Henry’s pre-K (which was interesting but a little frustrating because they were trying to cram the 3-4 hour workshop the person usually does into an hour after school). I find the research on this very persuasive, but I’m incredibly frustrated that none of these articles or books seem to provide very helpful models for HOW to talk with white children about race proactively. I know my kid is not colorblind and that we do not live in a colorblind world, but given that most of us are WANT to help bring about a world in which it is not the color of your skin that matters but the color of your character, it is very difficult to try to explain to a young child (with very limited reasoning skills) that he lives in a world where some people are mean and unfair to people just because their skin is browner than his (and nicer to people whose skin looks like ours), even though there is no absolutely no good reason to think that people’s skin color matters in terms of how nice or smart or interesting they are or whether you should be friends with them. I think a lot white parents just try to teach their kids that it is absolutely not okay to be mean to anyone for any reason, including what they look like, and hope that will do the trick.

    I suspect this will get easier for me as he gets older and his cognitive capacities are able to process more complex information, but it’s really hard to boil down at a level that makes sense to a 4-5 year old, who still thinks that “a black guy” means Darth Vader.

    I’d love to hear if you find any other books useful or more about how you deal with these issues with your students!

    1. I guess I sort of took away from this chapter that we shouldn’t ignore differences in skin color, like we don’t ignore gender differences or physical differences (short, tall, curly hair, long hair) – use child-appropriate language to talk about racial differences with your child. The authors say that, developmentally, children between the ages of 3 and 6 are both noticing differences and capable of being “molded” in terms of their response to differences.

      So if a 3-year old notices that “that man’s skin is dark” instead of what most parents would usually say (“Honey, we don’t talk about how people look” or something like that) the parent should say, yes, that man is Hispanic/black/Indian/Ethiopian – whatever – and then follow the child’s lead on whether or not he wants to talk more about it. Later, when the child is 5 or 6, the conversation might extend to something along the lines of “…and sometimes people form opinions about others just because of their skin color and say they can’t do certain things, does that sound fair to you?” I bet Henry would be ready for that. Kids his age are always concerned about what’s fair.

      Hmmmm, maybe I should write a post w/ ideas/suggestions. I’ll have to think about that after I’m finished with the whole book. I’m determined to do a post every day, and I have the lying chapter next!

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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