First of all, and most importantly, children are not color blind. To think that they don't notice race is a dangerous myth that puts the blame of innocent comments on parents who "must be teaching them at home". If they notice that a little wagon is red, and the grass is green, how could they not notice color of skin?
A study by Katz and Kofkin (1997) showed that children are able to "nonverbally categorize race" around 6 months. Infants will look at unfamiliar faces of different skin colors longer than unfamiliar faces of their own. They don't hate or develop prejudice; they simply notice. However, around ages 3-5, they begin to form opinions and biases based on their own experiences with regards to race. This is the critical time to begin to speak about it.
It is interesting to note that most parents don't have any problem speaking about gender differences, but they freeze when it comes to discussing race.
When children notice and make comments, terrified parents hush them for fear of offending someone.
Psychologist Beverly Tatum (1997) shares this example:
"A white mother and preschool child are shopping at the grocery store. They pass a black woman and child, and the white child says loudly, "Mommy, look at that girl! Why is she so dirty?" (Confusing dark skin with dirt is a common misconception among white preschool children.) The white mother, embarrassed by her child's comment, responds quickly with a "Ssh!" An appropriate response might have been: "Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It's just a different color. Just like we have different color hair, people have different skin colors."'
If the child still seemed interested, the explanation of melanin could be added. Perhaps afraid of saying the wrong thing, however, many parents don't offer an explanation. They stop at "Ssh," silencing the child but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it. Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don't go away, they just go unasked."
Another common mistake is believing that children are too young for discussions about race. While conversations should be age appropriate, to not talk about them at all can lead to errant thoughts and misconceptions. After all, there must be some reason you're uncomfortable speaking about it.
It isn't necessary to go into racism when you discuss race. However, if there are issues of racism that your child catches wind of on the news or in school, it should be addressed immediately in a comfortable conversation geared toward their age, understanding and circumstance.
To ignore race is to breed ignorance. Acknowledgment of the beautiful colors that make up the world is not only essential to our kids' understanding of global race and culture, it will lead to a more peaceful state of mind for them.
Many live in communities that do not have a diverse racial mix. If you live in such a place, try to find opportunities to visit places that do. When you look at the global population by race, you will note that, of the 6.7 billion people on the planet, Whites=17%; Blacks=15%; Asians=31%; Middle Easterners/Indians=25%; Native Americans/Mestizos=4%; Others=8%. This is good for children to know and understand if they live mainly among one race.
Just as people have different color eyes and hair, they have different color skin and there are as many shades of white, black and brown as there are any other color.
Acknowledge your children's questions. Address the issues. Discuss openly and never shush them when they have questions. It is not offensive to another race to acknowledge their color or culture.