Things to Read - Nurture Shock & Talking to Kids About Race


I have a love/hate relationship with parenting books. Some of them just seem so gimmicky that I end up turned off by the whole genre, but then I have freak out moments when I realize I have no idea what I'm doing (I majored in Chemistry and went to law school, I have no siblings, I barely ever babysat, children are an enigma to me) and realize that expert advice may be needed. So goes the pendulum of my life. But a friend recommended NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children and I figured I'd check it out. I really liked the book for many reasons, foremost among them the fact that the author isn't merely telling you his or her own views and experiences, instead it summarizes expert data and studies (on many different subjects) often with surprising results. I found it a fascinating read about how the brain works and how people learn, so even if you don't have kids, it's worth checking out.

One of the book's many points is that white people don't talk to their children about race [not a surprise here] and how troubling this is. According to the book, children are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism, hence if a child identifies someone as looking like him/her, the child is more likely to "like" that person. So if you don't talk about race, you may be unintentionally encouraging the biased choices that your child is making. I, probably like a lot of middle class white people, have completely avoided discussing race. I just didn't see a need to rock the boat. F goes to a preschool with minority kids - one of her best friends at preschool is black, her "love" is Hawaiian [if you find it problematic that a 5 year old refers to a boy as "my love", I'm right there with you], one of her favorite movies is Princess and the Frog. Everything seems to be going fine. But on Saturday, while P was at a playdate and F was home sick, I decided to broach the topic.

"So, F, have you ever noticed that some people are different colors than other people?"

"Of course, some of my friends are sort of brownish and my love [ugh, that term again] has this lovely goldish skin. [Apparently, the problem with not talking about race is that kids use the ENTIRELY WRONG vocabulary to describe people] And, you want to hear something sort of crazy, sometimes kids have totally different skin than their moms or dads? I saw a lady in the store who was my color and her daughter was sort of brown - isn't that crazy mom?"

Then, probably because I seemed curious about the salient features of her friends, F proceeded to show me a list, which I've seen before, on which she had printed the names of all her favorite friends when she was first learning to print her letters. What I hadn't notice before is that the colored markers she used to write her friends' names . . . yup, you guessed it . . . matched their skin color. So J (who is black) had her name written in brown, whereas E (who has red hair) had her name written in red, and F's "love" was written in orange - apparently as close she could get to his "lovely goldish" (F's words). It's sort of funny because I've been really impressed by how well F can recognize all her friends' names in writing when she struggles to read other long words, but now it makes sense - she color-coded them to help her remember. Apparently F is not only aware of race, she is hyper-aware of race, but what does this mean?

"So, F, do you think skin color matters? Would you ever pick a friend based on the color of their skin?

"Of course not, god made everyone different. This is how god planned it. Skin color is just another way that everyone can do their own thing." (yes, she literally said these words, all of a sudden all my doubts about religious preschool disappeared).

So now for the big question - "But is one skin color better than the others?" Totally holding my breath, now it would be decided, was my 5 year old a racist? No, please tell me no.

"Of course, mom" - I have failed. I have failed. I have failed - "brownish people are just prettier. They look nicer when they're old and they never get moles all over them like you have." Wait, what is going on here? my daughter wants to be black? Apparently. "So F, you like your skin color too right?" "Well, it's okay, but I wish it was um browner or more sort of goldish." All of a sudden, her whole childhood went by in a flash - we voted for Barack Obama (yeah, in case you haven't guessed, we're liberal like that), our favorite princess is Tiana (she is the only one who ever has a job after all), her best friend's parents are an inter-racial couple and they have the most perfect house in the neighborhood (F literally said upon arriving, "it's just beautiful, mom. everything in it is just beautiful.") And, then there are my moles (poor moles, loved by no one, including dermatologists and children). So where to go from here? I have no idea. She's 5, things will change, one day she'll like how she looks, then she'll hate it, then she'll like it again. Isn't this life? I guess the important thing is I opened the dialogue, and for that I can breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course, then I tried to have the same conversation with 4 year old P when she returned from her playdate. "So, P, have you ever noticed that some people are different colors than other people?" Complete blank. "No" (a somewhat surprising answer for a kid who won't go anywhere without a Tiana babydoll in her arms). So I labored on, "well, do some of your friends look different than other friends?" "All my friends are beautiful mom." Enough said.

What about everyone else? Have you talked to your kids about race? How did it go?

In case you're wondering, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children makes lot of interesting other points as well, including: praise isn't always good, IQ tests aren't accurate until at least third grade, parents shouldn't discourage tattling, and the importance of teaching self-control. I highly suggest it.


  1. Fascinating! Are most 5 year olds so observant? Or is it just our little prodigy? I trust her love is a nice kid, at least?

  2. I love this post! Oh my god Darcy, I just laughed out loud and nearly snorted my coffee. Thanks for making my morning! First of all, your kids are awesome. It kind of makes me want one. Secondly, I love the way they are open and positive about race. When some white people say "I don't see race" it makes me cringe. xo K

  3. Love this post! Andrew just read this Culture Shock book and I'm reading it now. It's a great book. I was thinking about how I'm going to broach the race issue with Jack when he's a little older, and you just gave me some great ideas!

  4. Thanks everyone! Margie - F's love is really cute and really nice, quite the pick. the only problem is he's moving to Hawaii, so F keeps asking questions like "will he find another love?" (seriously) to which Dan and I respond "he isn't even 6, so YES he will find another love."

  5. I'm with the rest of the commenters - great post! It's so interesting to hear such raw observations about race and other big life topics. My son, who is also 5, has asked why some kids in his class have brown skin and some have light skin. I give him the standard answer that people come in all colors and sizes, but reading your post makes me think I should start probing a little more to see what he feel about it. Also great to hear more kudos for NutureShock - it's a fascinating book and has become our go-to resource for applicable developmental questions.

  6. Darcy, this is an amazing post. I would consider trying to get it published -- seriously.

  7. Great post!
    I read Culture Shock in hardback a while ago. I talked to my college (and some high school) students in my class about the sleep chapter. I recommended the whole book to my Social Psych students for all the insights.
    I am ashamed, though, that I wasn't brave enough to broach the race discussion with my 6-year-old as you have. And you did it so beautifully.
    Your kids (and you) are wonderful!

  8. I think I will order that book. Sounds just very good and interesting. I did not read any parenting book so far just some articles on the net or in magazines.
    And- I simply love your blog!



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