a fascinating look at race and the developmental window for avoiding racism

nurture shock 500x755.jpg

by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman - Mulpurae, 2010
in / parent + teacher books

According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Nurture Shock, children as young as 6 months old notice differences in skin colour and, as young as 3 years old, they are already starting to classify based on race or ethnicity. 

So, raising compassionate children who aren't hampered by racism isn't as simple as trying to produce ‘colour blind’ kids! One thing that does seems to really help is lots of explicit talk about race. That can be quite hard though. How do you bring this stuff up in a way that doesn’t leave the parent cringing? 

Books, especially picture books, can help. They open a window to conversation. They give us a ‘real’ story to talk about without having to fumble around in the dark looking for examples. And they give us a chance to talk about skin colour for what it is – “a sign of ancestral roots.” 

It’s worth hunting down picture books with characters from a wide variety of races – and it is a hunt. They’re not as thick on the ground as we’d like! (Our racism category has some.)

Stories that show ‘historical discrimination’ also seem to help. In one study cited in Nurture Shock, it was found that:

White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes toward blacks… Explicitness works.

Books like People by Peter Spier do a brilliant job of drawing attention to race and ethnicity – and it’s important that that happens early. And we've done a post with a handful of books that will alert children to historical discrimination or hardship, but won’t lead to the defensiveness which Nurture Shock says may be counter-productive.

Nurture Shock talks about a developmental window – ‘stages when children’s attitudes might be most amenable to change.’ It seems like the developmental window for a child to develop healthy attitudes towards race may be quite small and it typically happens when the child is quite young.

It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognise it’s safe to start talking about race, the developmental window has already closed.

Apparently the brain starts to categorise very early. This can lead to some confusion since children often have limited information to work with. 

Children categorise everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorise anything. 

In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.

And of course, when we're classifying people, skin colour, hair colour, language and so on are often the most obvious ways to classify. Picture books can help with that too. By highlighting one or two particular aspects of a character’s life, they give clues about other ways to categorise in addition to the most obvious.

Race is only one chapter in Nurture Shock – the whole book is an eye opener and really worth owning. Most of the studies in the chapter I've quoted were based around schools, and the cross-over between school and home is obvious. It’s certainly nice to imagine the benefits to children who have both home and school working to overcome racism.

Don’t forget to have a look at our list of books that deal with historical discrimination or hardship - it's in Conversation Starters: talking to children about race.

(All quotes are from Nurture Shock, Chapter Three, ‘Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race”)