Discussing skin tone with my toddler

Last week, I was playing with my kids (son: 3 years old; daughter: 11 months old) in the baby’s room after she awoke from a nap. While I was changing her diaper, my son picked up a book that has a picture of a black toddler on the front and said, “look Mommy, it’s Victor!” (name has been changed)

My son started a new school last week and Victor is one of his classmates and happens to be black. I immediately registered that this was an opportunity to discuss race openly, but was knee deep in a diaper. Crap! Literally. I quickly finished changing my daughter and set her down so I could focus my energy on my son before the moment passed. Here’s how it went down:

I sit down and pull him into my lap so I can keep his attention longer than 10 seconds. It’s my only fighting chance.

Me: Honey, that’s not Victor. That’s another little boy who has brown skin.

Son: Yes it is, Victor! Look, he has black hair just like Victor.

Me: Yes, this little boy does have black hair and so does Victor. But there are lots of people in the world who have black hair and brown skin, that people call black. Look, let’s find another picture to compare. (Thankfully, this particular book shows another baby who is black). Is this the same baby that’s on the front of the book?

My son earnestly flips between the two pages and decides that no, they are not the same babies.

Me: Are either of these babies Victor?

Son: No.

Me: And look, here’s a baby with peachy skin that people call white and blonde hair like you. Is this you??

My son giggles and says, “No, that’s not me.”

He starts to squirm in my lap and I can tell he’s losing interest in our talk. I finish by saying, “so you see, honey, there are lots of people in the world with brown skin and white skin but no two people look alike.”

Son: Okay, mommy.

I mean…dare I say that went okay?? Certainly better than when my son called me a racist and I felt caught off guard and ill-equipped to respond. Admittedly, this was an easier scenario because the comment my son made was not negative in any way so my emotions did not play a part in how I reacted. Also, I have been doing my homework so felt better prepared. Shout out to the blog Raising Race Conscious Children where I learned strategies for naming race with children that I utilized in this situation.

There are two main take aways for me: 1) Having a book that featured children of different races was the catalyst to this conversation happening. If I did not own that book, my son would have never made the connection and an opportunity to discuss race would have been lost. Books matter. This was a lay-up. 2) My son is in class with black children for the first time in his life and it matters. His previous preschool was pretty much all blonde hair and blue eyed children and now he’s in a classroom where about 1/3 of the students are students of color. We’ve owned this book since he was one and he never made a comment like that before. And why would he? His exposure to children from different races has been minimal. Thanks to simply being in a classroom with a black student we are conversing about race two days into the school year.

Time to hit the book store! I’m going to incorporate even more books into our personal library that feature racially diverse characters and themes. I’m also going to seize any and all opportunities to discuss race in a frank and open manner with my children. Speaking about race really is getting easier the more I research and put the suggested skills into practice.

What’s your favorite children’s book that promotes diversity? I’m making a list…


16 thoughts on “Discussing skin tone with my toddler

  1. abstyles says:

    Well handled. I’m definitely taking notes. We try to have diverse characters in our daughters’s books and some of our books that feature African American people include Everywhere Babies, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, This Jazz Man, Corduroy, and Global Babies. Actually, most of her favorites either have black characters or are entirely made up of talking animals.


  2. Kristine C says:

    R loves the Sesame Street book, “We’re Different, We’re the Same”. Probably a little old school, but it gets us into some pretty great discussions (as discussions go with a 3 year old)


  3. Amelia says:

    Aimed at 2-4 year olds, “Oscar’s Half Birthday” features a mixed-race couple and their two kids, and is utterly lovely in its urban setting…although it never once mentions race. Also all the other people in the book are, mysteriously, White. But being a city-dweller, I appreciate the casual positivity of the urban setting, versus the dominant rural-pastoral!


  4. jhywill says:

    We like “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont. Also, Karen Katz’s board books always feature babies of different skin tones – great for super-small kids!


  5. Gilad Shanan says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, this site is such a wonderful resource! Do you have a list of children’s books featuring diverse characters that you can share with us?

    Liked by 1 person

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