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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Consider simply asking some questions before imparting wisdom, Killen says. Think of yourself as an investigative reporter, or even a law professor using the Socratic method, to encourage her to think critically. Some suggestions:

* “Oh, that’s interesting. And what do you think that means?”

* “I think it’s OK that you eat the same lunch as kids who are a different color. What do you think? Hmm, why is that?”

“Children this age don’t understand variability within the group, so we really have to talk about heterogeneity within the group,” says Killen. And research shows (pdf) that when children are taught to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person at once, their racial biases decrease.

So point out the differences among children who get school lunch that she can see: big kids, little kids; boys and girls.

Try statements that focus on shared interests. “Families who have busy mornings like to choose school lunch instead of making it,” or even, “We choose school lunch because it costs less money, and we need to use our money for other things, and other families do, too.”

Killen also encourages reminding your child that common ground should trump race, like, “Don’t I remember that you like playing with [insert nonwhite classmate’s name]? You get to eat the same lunch as her. Isn’t that great?”

A bonus line: “We get to do what is good for our family. Sometimes that means we can do what people who are different colors do, and we like that.”

Over the next handful of years, as her observations become more pointed and relate more directly to race and inequality, remember that experts say (pdf) it’s important to explain that we live in a world that’s often unfair to people of color, and to make it clear that racial and ethic prejudice and discrimination are part of a larger society that needs reform (and not just something that happened in the past or that only individuals perpetuate).

Inspiring deeper thinking versus stifling curiosity about this unavoidable issue will be key here. Take it from Emily Spangler, the 15-year-old co-director of, who still remembers how upset she was when, as a 7-year-old, she learned about slavery. Fast-forward less than a decade, and she speaks expertly about the origins of the #feminismisforwhitewomen hashtag and her related understanding that “I’m privileged, I’m white, I’m cis, and we really need to start fighting for racial equality” in feminism.