There are three times when my four year old son, Devin, has left me speechless:
- The moment when he was born and I saw his cone head.
- At a party, when he lifted up my shirt and asked, “Daddy, is there a baby in your belly?”
- When Devin was 10 months old and my wife and I realized he was racist.
The first two are easy to explain. I didn’t know conehead-ism (made up term!) was a temporary condition with naturally delivered babies, until a nurse later explained it to me. I always imagined that seeing my child for the first time would induce multitudes of emotions like excitement and wonder and awe. Instead, I stood there staring at his head, speechless and thinking of Dan Aykroyd.
The baby in the belly comment made me start exercising regularly. Enough said. But let me explain the last one. At 10 months old, Devin exhibited no signs of stranger anxiety and would go with anyone – unless that person was black. Then tears shot up like a busted fire hydrant.
This shocked me for two reasons.
- I always thought children were born color blind and society filled their heads with prominent prejudices. But it was obvious that Devin could differentiate skin colors. He even cried at the sight of fellow Indians with darker complexions.
- I felt this was some indictment against me. I had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, where he wrote about research results that revealed most whites and Asians harbor some levels of unconscious prejudices against blacks. Maybe Devin was picking up on some of these signals I was unknowingly transmitting.
I realized I was wrong on both fronts when I read the book Nurture Shock. Apparently, children are very good at distinguishing skin color from an early age. Babies as young as six months old will stare significantly longer at photographs of faces that are a different race from their parents. The book argues that parents need to talk to their children about race as early as three years old.
Most parents know kids can categorize things like toys and food, but unfortunately kids can do the same with people. If Devin is able to generalize that all green food tastes like broccoli, then he’s able to make conclusions about skin color. Young kids do not have the ability to use more than one attribute to categorize anything. So in Devin’s mind, spinach equals mint ice cream equals kiwi slices equals broccoli.
One study asked toddlers to choose whom they’d like to befriend from photographs of children of all races. A whopping 86% of white children picked other white kids. Children identify with other children that look like themselves and think those kids like all the same things they do. And all the kids that don’t look like themselves, like everything they don’t.
The book says that though most parents feel uncomfortable talking with their kids about race, they need to do it anyway. It is the same as needing to explain all green food is not the same. Inspired by this chapter of Nurture Shock, I decided to talk to Devin about race.
I said, “Devin, we have brown skin but some people at school or on tv have different skin colors than us. They might have white skin or black skin but they could like the same things as you. They are still good people and you can be their friend.”
“Daddy,” he said, “all white people are like grandpa’s white car, right? And all black people are like black cameras, right?” Well, that didn’t work, I thought, as I sat there speechless.