Especially for Parents: A Place for Race in Early Childhood?

Alli Zomer, Director of Operations

In the world of early childhood, one gets used to clever wordplay when it comes to books and resources: The ABC’s of Love, Eye See You, or 1-2-3 Magic. But when I recently picked up the book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, the title left me feeling far from playful. The book’s author, sociologist Debra VanAusdale, spent one year observing a preschool classroom. She listened to stories, watched children build and topple towers, and attended field trips. But mostly, she observed. Her goal was to explore what young children know and understand about race. Do they notice it? Do they talk about it? Do they respond to it? And if so, how?

For many parents and teachers, these can be scary questions to even ask. A common assumption is that children are happily colorblind – that they don’t see or understand race and view all people as the same. Many parents and educators worry that talking about race could be harmful – that it could introduce ideas about difference or somehow “teach” children racism when otherwise they would be free from it. But VanAusdale’s observations show that children as young as 3, 4 and 5 very much understand race. They observe how people are different from one another: VanAusdale’s preschoolers frequently compared their skin tones or identified book characters based on their race. They know about their own family’s racial backgrounds, as well as those of their peers: when a mixed-race child was picked up by her Black mother and White father, other children were direct and inquisitive, trying to piece together the puzzle of race and families. VanAusdale’s preschoolers were like all children, they ask questions as they try to figure out what these differences mean. And in the absence of explicit conversation from adults, children pick up implicit (and too often negative) messages from the world around them.

In recognition of this early racial awareness, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), through which Especially for Children obtains accreditation, encourages early childhood educators to get comfortable with a topic that for many is anything but comfortable. A 2018 NAEYC article on the issue was titled “Becoming Upended,” and that seems like a very apt name; while on the one hand race is everywhere in our society, on the other hand there is a very real social stigma against talking about it openly. But just as we help children navigate everything else, we have an opportunity to help them navigate race in a way that recognizes and celebrates our similarities as well as our differences.

The leadership team at EFC (directors and administrators) have been participating in a series of trainings aimed at better understanding race: its history, its impact, and how to help young children make sense of it in a positive way. Our goal in this work, as with all of the continuing education we engage in, is to grow and learn so that we can continue to help all children (and adults!) thrive in an environment that honors the myriad of backgrounds, experiences, languages and cultures that combine to make our EFC community vibrant.

Resources: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2018/teaching-learning-race-and-racism