Getty: Rob Lewine

Getty: Rob Lewine

A new study from New York University shows that African American parents are seriously concerned about teaching their children to handle race-related issues and that the conversations begin with preschoolers.

Rather than emphasize the type of bias that it usually practiced against us, the research shows that black parents most often talk to their young children about egalitarianism—placing an emphasis on the concepts and values associated with equal rights, opportunities, and shared humanity across racial lines. The messages change, however, as children grow older.

Preparing Our Kids

Researchers from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, studied ethnic-racial socialization, as guided by the verbal and non-verbal messages shared with children about race. They found that age played a significant role in how parents approached the topic.

Younger children were taught basic information about culture and ethnicity, while older children were more likely to receive messages about discrimination. Middle-class and working class parents also had different approaches.

“Our study asked, ‘What should young black children know about race?’ We were particularly interested in the content of ethnic-racial socialization messages among parents of preschool children preparing for the transition to school,” said Fabienne Doucet, associate professor of education at NYU Steinhardt in a university interview.

Focusing on a small group of 26 African American parents and caregivers in Greensboro, North Carolina, the researchers found that 84 percent provided some type of ethnic-racial socialization message to children.

The majority—55 percent—highlighted ideas about egalitarianism, but working-class parents (75 percent) were more likely to focus on equal rights middle class parents (43 percent. Nearly 40 percent of the middle class parents prepared their children to face racial bias in life, but not the working-class participants.

In  general, the working class parents were less likely to recount instances of racial discrimination (54 percent), but when they did, they followed with a message about the importance of egalitarianism. Yet, 86 percent of the middle-class parents shared instances of having experienced racism with their children.

“What is interesting is two patterns emerged: first, families favored messages of egalitarianism as opposed to preparing children for bias; second, middle-class participants were more likely to share their racism experiences, talk about ethnic-racial socialization, and draw a connection between the two,” Doucet said for her NYU interview.

The researchers thought that perhaps the messages were more likely to discuss equal right when children were small, because the parents and caregivers decided their children were not yet old enough to understand racism.

“For African American caregivers, race is a fact of life. At a turning point in their young children’s development, the study’s participants reflected the life lessons they had learned from their experiences, as well as the imagined future into which their children were being launched,” said Doucet.

Here are two sets of resources that may make it easier for parents to begin the conversation.

  1. Talking to Our Children at Civil
  2. For young children, here’s a list of book about race and racism