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Kids And Race And Equality: On Raising a Loving Child

By Serge Bielanko |

My wife and daughter turn their backs on hate.

In the supermarket the other day, my three-year-old daughter was helping me toss some vegetables in our shopping cart when two young African American guys strolled by.

Violet, smiled at up them, like she smiles at just about everybody these day, and I was sort of proud of that. I like that she is a smiler, what dad wouldn’t.

Then she blurted out,”Look Daddy, they have brown faces!”

The guys were out of earshot by then and I found myself standing there with a bag of jalapenos dangling from my fist, wondering what had just happened.

I mean, it wasn’t anything bad she had said.

She’s so young and toddlers are notorious for opening their mouths and just saying whatever they feel like saying. But, in that moment, standing right beside her with her tiny heart pumping just a few feet from mine, something slammed into my chest.

What that was was the realization that, for my wife and I, the monumental work, our life’s work, so to speak, starts now.

As parents who want to stress that all people are equal, no matter what they look like/who they worship/ who they choose to love/ or where they come from, the process of speaking to your child about some of the most important things we will ever be able to teach them starts as soon as they begin to make observations like Violet made that day.

In my mind, the earlier that my kids hear something from my very own mouth, the more they are prone to understand the weight of my words for the rest of their lives.

Children hit an age, usually around a year or two, when their minds begin to sponge up information with intensity. There isn’t much memory to speak of just yet, I don’t believe. That stuff usually comes around three or four. But within their little heads, lots of other cogs are already turning by the time they can do some walking and talking, and that’s when we, as parents, have to be on our teaching toes.

To be honest, I have thought about the day when I wanted to talk to my children individually about how people have different color skin and different body shapes and different beliefs, but I have struggled to find the ways. They are just so young yet that sometimes it seems my efforts are simply lost in the shuffle of playtime or tired scrambled brains.

Perhaps, that’s how things are meant to be too, right?

I mean, at one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half, it’s still pretty difficult to get them to pee in the darn potty, let alone listen to me speak about equality and human rights.

Still, that brief incident in the grocery store moved me to thinking.

What should I tell Violet now, today?

How do I explain to her that, in this life, to reach a place where we never even notice people’s skin color, is to live with a mind uncluttered by the hate that ultimately destroys the minds of so many around us.

And when do I start?

I knew the other day that she was noticing the people around her, taking them in as a simple observer and not just plowing by them on her way to something fun or yummy. That was really eye-opening to me as her dad.; it tells me that there are beautiful talks and intriguing questions coming my way, and hers too, in our very near future.

I may not have all the answers just yet,

I might not know exactly what to say, or how and when to say it,  but I can tell you this much.

I feel damn good knowing that I’m crazy in love with two shining little people, with hearts as blank as slates.

And that my real work has only just begun.


You can also find Serge on his personal blog, Thunder Pie.

And on Facebook and Twitter.

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More from Serge:

The Heart Of A Gun: Bad Guys, Bullets, and the Batman Movie Massacre

The Ways Of Love: 20 Things My Kids Have Taught Me About Living

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: A Married Father’s Salute To Solo Parents

Come On Up For The Rising: Heading Home After the Fire

25 Things About My Son, Henry

More on Babble

About Serge Bielanko


Serge Bielanko

Serge Bielanko writes about fatherhood for Babble Dad and about marriage stuff for Babble Voices at He Said/She Said. His writing has appeared in Esquire and The Huffington Post, as well as on his personal blog, Thunder Pie. He lives with his wife and two kids in central Pennsylvania. Read bio and latest posts → Read Serge's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “Kids And Race And Equality: On Raising a Loving Child

  1. Kristin says:

    A couple of years after 9/11, I was in a line in a small, crowded space in the post office when a woman dressed in a burka came in. Lots of people were averting their eyes. It was dead silent in the room (as people were no doubt fuming over the length of the line). My then-toddler not only did not avert her eyes (which was fine), but she called out for everyone to hear – and probably pointed at the woman too – saying, “Look, Mommy! That woman doesn’t have a face!” I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. But instead, I said – loudly enough for everyone to hear, but not shouting – “Oh, no. She has a face. You just can’t see it because it’s covered up by her outfit,” (or something like that). At that point the woman in the burka came up to me and asked if she could approach my daughter and speak to her, and I said of course. She got really close to her and asked my daughter to take a close look at the part of the veil that covered her eyes, which was a lot like a screen, and said, “Can you see my eyes?” and my daughter said she could and they had a little back and forth and that was that.

    We also have lots of friends who are gay couples. One day when she was about 4, my middle daughter asked right out of the blue, “Why don’t John and Bill have a woman in their family?” This time we were in the privacy of our own home, so there was no pressure of a crowd. But lots of pressure from within me — how do I answer this question correctly for a 4-year-old? I reminded myself to answer the question they ask, not the one it makes you think of, and said, “Well…not everyone does. And not everyone has a man in their family. Karen and Laura don’t have a man in their family, right?” And that was that. It answered her question and she was satisfied.

    A couple of months ago the same daughter asked me if Stacy and Clinton on “What Not to Wear” are married. I said no. Then I said, “Stacy’s not married, I’m pretty sure. Clinton is married, but not to Stacy. He’s married to a man.” Her initial reaction was, “WHAT?!?!?!” and I had a moment of, “I have failed at this!” Then she paused for a moment and said, “Oh…like John and Bill.” I said, “Right…except in Connecticut, where Clinton lives, it’s legal for two men to marry each other or two women to marry each other. It’s not legal in Kansas, so John and Bill can’t get married here.” And she was fine with it again after that.

    We just have to figure it out as we go. The trick for adults is to remain calm as our own embarrassment or awkwardness or whatever else races through us in the face of really innocent remarks or questions from our kids.

  2. Jelena says:

    As a mother with a multi-racial child (1/4 black, 1/4 latino, 1/2 white) I would say that exposure and not making a “big deal” about differences is the best way to go about it. Im not saying to ignore differences, but to casually acknowledge your kid’s observation of the differences (yes, sweetie, all people look different…different skin color, different eye color, different hair color, etc., but we are all people) and then move on. Eventually they will pick up what you model for them, and if they see that you treat ALL people with dignity and respect, then they will follow suit. I think its a bit easier for me in some ways because my son has a built in family of different races and cultures, but at the same time, I worry when he gets older and starts bringing friends over (incidentally he looks very Caucasian…light skin, blond, straight hair) because I am half black and much darker than he is. Im afraid it may become a matter of awkwardness for him. But for now, I take pride in the fact that at age 5 he does not distinguish people by the color of their skin. Everyone is either a man or woman, boy or girl…only to be told apart by the color of the shirt they are wearing.

  3. Brandi says:

    I feel it’s best to talk about how people have differences, but we love them all the same. Maybe start with hair or eye color (something she sees daily). Like I have dark hair & Mommy has light hair but you love us both the same. Same with gender. Or how the Amish dress differently, but they are still as awesome as us. Simple differences that she can understand & as they get older you can expand the conversation. When my daughter was 4 she announced to me her best friend at pre-school has light colored hair but my daughter (who has brown hair) still loves her because we love people for who they are not what they look like. :)

  4. Val K says:

    I agree with keeping it simple and not a big deal at this age. Especially since the lesson you’re trying to instill is that it ISN’T a big deal. My 5 year old has pointed out differences in skin color before and I usually just reply with casual confirmation that yep, so-in-so does have brown skin and it’s darker than yours. Just like Mommy’s brown hair & brown eyes are darker than Daddy’s blonde hair and blue eyes. No biggie, it’s just how they were made.

    I remember a day this past year when she came home from preschool and told me that her class all drew pictures of themselves and she explained to me how she used the peach crayon for her skin and Alan got to use a tan crayon and someone else used a brown crayon because all their skin color was different. The way she explained it so matter-of-fact/no big deal/just another fun fact of her day reassured me that, at least for now, I’ve done an okay job on the subject.

    @Kristin, I love your point about only answering the question they ask, not the one it makes you think of. I think that’s great advice and I’ll have to remember it! Most of the time our little ones simply want to know the obvious answer of their question. They don’t care about all the complicated grey area that leads up to their observation.

  5. Kristen Howerton says:

    I agree with Jelena. If you make a big deal of her observation, she might think that noticing brown skin is scary or taboo. At this point, I’d acknowledge and move on. Noticing skin color isn’t bad. It’s our baggage that provokes the feelings around it.

  6. Coco says:

    Whatever you do please don’t shush her or whisper …it’s skin, no big deal. As a very white woman with is child who is clearly not 100% Irish, I get so tired of people acting like skin color is a disease or must not be spoken of. My kid is brown, no worries…we know! He wont drop dead if you say the word “black” in your normal voice. We always laugh when people lower their voice to state he is black, or African American or biracial or whatever…”do they think I am going to be surprised? WHAT??? I am BLACK??? I never knew!”..I never wanted him to think his skin was something to be embarassed or ashamed about, so we talk about skin color the same we would about my red hair, his cousin’s freckles, my sister’s eye color…it is simply part of what makes each of us who we are.

    I get asked by little kids all the time “Are you really his mom?” yep… “why is he brown and you are white?” because he looks like me AND his dad, just like you probably look like people in your family, right? “yeah….okay bye” so not a big deal, but their parents can be just horrified and I wish they would just relax. Their reactions make the kids think there is something wrong or scary about differences….but a simple, honest explanation goes a long way!

  7. Ellie {Musing Momma} says:

    So many great suggestions! This has been an ongoing discussion in our house, since my boys (who are biracial) were old enough to talk. I would definitely recommend searching out books and other media that show diverse characters, especially if you don’t have a very diverse social circle. There are some great ones for toddlers and preschoolers that aren’t necessarily about race, but simply show race. I wrote a post about that a while back. I promise I am NOT trying to self-promote here, just hope it might be useful! :) Lots of book suggestions in the comments too. The Todd Parr books, like “The Family Book” are also great tools for talking about how we are similar in spite of differences.

  8. Victoria says:

    I agree with Kristen and Jelena. I think its unrealistic to not notice skin color unless you are blind.

  9. sergebielanko says:

    Of all the comments I have received in response to something I’ve written, these are some of my favorites. Thanks to each of you for some great insight; I hope lots of people get to see what you each have written, because it’s really worth reading.

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