How Not to Panic When Your Toddler Sounds a Little Racist  

Race Manners: My white preschooler thinks she should do what “kids that are the same color” do at lunch. Help!

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“My 3-year-old daughter attends preschool at a public charter in Washington, D.C. The school draws students citywide through a lottery system and is very diverse (a black plurality, with significant Latino and Asian populations). In her classroom of 18, she is one of four white children.

“We opt to pay for the school-provided lunch, for three reasons: 1) Making a lunch every day doesn’t fit our family schedule, 2) It’s cost-effective even when paying full freight at $3 a day and 3) Most of the children at the school eat the school lunch—some because it is subsidized or free based on income qualifications—and we like the social values of a ‘You eat what everyone else is eating’ approach. Yesterday she asked me if she could start bringing her lunch from home. When I asked why, first she said, ‘School lunch is boring’ and then said, ‘Because all of the other kids that are the same color as me [white] bring their lunch.’

“We’re standing firm on using school lunches, but I feel like I’m missing a teachable moment: She has observed that privilege and choice are often tied to one’s color and status. How can I explain why that is and how it doesn’t match our family’s vision of the world we want to have, in an age-appropriate way?” —Life Lessons for the Preliterate Set

The good news is that your daughter’s observations are normal. There’s nothing to suggest that she’s a budding racist or that she is unusually preoccupied with preschool issues of color and privilege. (In other words, not that it would be the worst thing in the world, but it seems unlikely that you have a tiny, female Tim Wise on your hands.)

Although we think of race as a heavy, adult issue, children naturally tune in to it—all the time.

Researchers say (pdf) that babies nonverbally categorize people by race and gender at 6 months of age, and possibly even earlier. And 2-year-olds can use racial labels to reason about people’s behavior. Guess where many of these studies took place? Diverse schools and day care centers just like yours.

Also, your 3-year-old’s awareness of “kids that are the same color” doesn’t mean you fell down on the job of raising a child who judges classmates by their character. Regardless of what happens at home, children conform to cultural and social norms to help them function in society. It’s how they’re wired (pdf). (Think of how kids whose parents speak with accents often don’t, because of input from outside sources during their language development.)

And it turns out that kids your daughter’s age are experts on categorizing by color, and not just because of all that work with red, yellow, blue and green blocks. Then their little minds engage in what’s called transductive reasoning—when they see people who are alike in one dimension and they presume that they are, or should be, alike in other dimensions as well. (Side note: From now on, when adults can’t let go of racial tropes, we can accuse them of thinking like 3-year-olds.)

On top of all that, children that age are good-enough observers to begin to take the one category that sticks out to them and pick up on the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in U.S. society—even if they probably wouldn’t explain it in those words. (Check out Erin Winkler’s “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race” [pdf] for more on all this.)

Melanie A. Killen, a professor of developmental science at the University of Maryland and the author of Children and Social Exclusion: Morality, Prejudice and Group Identity, says she would encourage you to take a step back before assuming that your kid actually gets at this point that “privilege and choice are often tied to one’s color and status.” Your daughter is only seeing patterns and trying to make sense of them, but it’s not clear that she has attached any value judgment (besides “boring”) to school lunches.