Should we talk to our kids about race?

Do you have these cups? Everyone I know has these cups. They’re from IKEA which means they’re super cheap and awesome. Except for one thing. I can’t help from paying attention to which color I’m giving to the kids. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to teach them that color matters, and I’m just supposed to grab the two cups from the top of the pile and put them on the table without thinking about it. But I don’t.

Because do you know what happens when I put the pink cup down in front of my son? A shitstorm of monumental proportions. And I can try to reason with him and tell him color doesn’t matter, but by this point he’s wailing and past the point of no return and he’d rather die of thirst. So for the past year or so, if there’s a pink cup or a purple one on top of the pile, I’ve been intentionally pulling a different one from the middle. But I think I’m going to stop. And here’s why.

So the other day we were in the car and Holden said something.

HOLDEN: I know someone who’s black.

Just to clarify, I don’t remember what exactly we were talking about but this wasn’t totally random and it was in context of our conversation.

ME: Oh yeah, who?

HOLDEN: Benji.

ME: Hmmm, well buddy, he’s actually not black. He’s Asian.

But it was interesting because clearly Holden noticed that there was something different about the coloring of Benji. And we ended up having a little conversation about skin color and what it means and what it doesn’t mean.

Some people say kids don’t notice skin color and that it’s taught, but I’m calling bullshit on that. Kids notice color, and not just in cups. Like once when Zoey was little she asked the man behind the deli counter if he was made of chocolate. Needless to say, I was mortified. I mean I don’t think kids look at someone of a different color and think the person is bad or anything, but I do think they notice sometimes.

And we can keep our mouths shut and not talk about it because it’s kind of an uncomfortable subject and we don’t want to say the wrong thing, or we can be open about it and help our kids understand why diversity is a beautiful thing that we should cherish. Not ignore.

So this is what I’m starting to tell my kids. That it’s totally okay to notice someone’s race, but what’s not okay is to judge them for it. Because it’s what’s on the inside that counts the most. Thoughts, dreams, love, hate, beliefs, personality, kindness, humor and an endless number of other things that make us who we are. You can notice someone’s outside, but you can’t really know them until you get to know their inside.

So I know what you might be thinking right now. WTF does this have to do with stupid IKEA cups? Just because he doesn’t want the pink cup doesn’t make him a racist. Well, a cup racist maybe. But the way I see it, by purposely giving my son the green or the blue cup every time, I’ve been missing out on a great life lesson. So here’s what I’m going to do.

This week I’m going to put two cups in front of him. A pink one with apple juice, and a blue one with asparagus juice (or something else equally disgusting). And then I’m going to let him choose. If he makes his decision based on the outside, he’s going to get a rude awakening. But if he is smart and examines what’s on the inside, he’s going to be much happier with his choice. See buddy, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. (Update: It’s a year later and I FINALLY did this. Here it is!!)

By the way, I did try it with Holden too but I’m not showing it because he burst out crying and freaked out when I tried to make him drink out of a pink cup. You win some, you lose some. One day he’ll know it doesn’t matter what color cup you drink your wine out of.

If you liked this, please don’t forget to like and share it. Thank you!!

And if you’re looking for something to do besides play cup experiments on your kids, check out my book I Want My Epidural Back! You’ll be laughing ’til you pee yourself. Send me the dry cleaning bill! I won’t pay it, but it’ll make me feel good.


There are 15 comments for this article
  1. Jessica at 11:15 am

    Such a great way too look at it! I love your blog!

  2. Stacy Scanlon at 1:15 pm

    This is, by far, the best example of how to talk to our kids about race that I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Leesa Hall at 1:26 pm

    THAT… Is a freakin awesome idea!!!!

  4. Diane Simancek at 1:34 pm

    When my girls were young, we lived about 50 miles outside Detroit in white suburbia. There were NO black or Asian people in our neighborhood. Rarely saw someone with skin of a different color. I decided to expose my girls to the more ethnically mixed neighborhood in Southfield….across the street where my husband worked. We set off to McDonald’s for lunch. While driving there I brought up Sesame Street and how some of the characters have different colored skin. Did they ever notice that? I don’t now recall what they said….. I counseled them during our drive that “color is only skin deep”. Every human being is the same inside, eats, goes to work or school, has families and shares emotions just like us: Happy, sad, funny, etc. I told them that it is impolite to point to someone who is a different color or to speak out and announce it in public. “If you have any questions, don’t ask me in the restaurant, but wait until we are back in the car.” They understood and knew they had to be on their best behavior. After lunch we visited my husband’s tool and die shop….and I think the girls noticed that there were some black employees working there. To this day, I must report that my girls are not prejudiced. As a side note, their grandfather who started the tool & die business back in the 1940’s was very racially biased. He even used the N word to call out to the janitor when he wanted his attention. My husband and his siblings called their dad out on that immediately and told their dad that “You can’t do that dad!” This is something that must be discussed with our kids. We have never used the N word in our home. But, our kids do know that their grandpa did. It will take some more generations for our country to assimilate, and we must work on that. Your column is GREAT – THIS ARTICLE IS GREAT TOO! THANKS!!

  5. Rachel at 2:22 pm

    Have you read the book “Wonder”? We read it in our family and it opened up conversation about people who look different and we have been able to talk about all physical differences. We LOVE the book, it’s a family treasure!

  6. Rachel Snowden at 2:46 pm

    I will never forget the day my cousin’s daughter, who was living with us while her mom was overseas with the Army, saw a woman standing in front of us in line at the store and asked “Aunt Lynn, why is that lady’s skin so dark?” way louder than any of us would have preferred. She was only maybe 3 or 4 at the time, but for a minute, my mom and I were both just too stunned to speak. This lovely African American woman obviously heard the comment, and she turned around. I could see my mom gearing up for an apology, or to say something to my cousin about “not asking questions like that” or whatever, but this lady, calm as you please, just said, “Well, sweetheart, I was born this way, because this is how God wanted me to look” and she smiled at my mom and I and told us to have a good day and went on her way. Honestly, I think the reason we were so shocked by the question was that my cousin and her 3 sisters are all bi-racial, and have a noticeably different skin color than the rest of our family, and her daughter’s skin is lighter than her mom’s but still darker than her other cousins. We just assumed that because she spent her whole life in a family that had a variety of skin colors, it would never even occur to her to ask. When we got home, my mom sat her down and they had as much of a discussion as you can have with a 3 or 4 year old about how yes, some people’s skin looks different, and we compared her skin to her mom’s and her cousins and ours and said “see, we’re all different, but that’s ok, because it’s what’s in your heart that matters.” My cousin was satisfied with that, and I’m sure she’s had more questions over the years, but I think it’s important to address the issue in an age appropriate manner any time a question like that comes up.

  7. ssaaty21236 at 5:20 pm

    Funny coincidence, I relayed the story of how I taught this lesson to my first born when he was maybe about four. He wasn’t old enough to take in the way you explained it(although I think you’re a fabulous mom, love your stories and think Zoey is quite an amazing human being.)
    If you’re interested, I think I had a great idea that worked perfectly for a 3-4 yr old. I’d love to write n share w your readers, just don’t know the protocol for such a post. I know you share other bloggers’ sometimes…I do blog but it’s primarily for cancer survivors and their families. Let me know. Or if you are just too too busy, I get it. Working mom w two +husband is tough enough. (I had four plus out of house career)
    I admire and adore you woman.
    Rock on.

  8. Donna at 11:18 am

    love this…ingenious…a good lesson for all of us…thanks

  9. Anne Brocklehurst at 6:56 pm

    Love this (yes, we have loads of those cups!) and loved recently reading your book, I Heart My Little A-holes. My mom gave a copy to my sisters and I for Mother’s Day and it was easily the best Mother’s Day present I’ve received. Loved it so much that I drove 10 minutes out of the way with two complaining kids to share it with a friend who’s traveling with her husband and 3 boys this weekend. Suggested she read the part about traveling with kids while on the plane ?. You’re awesome and I look forward to reading more of your hilarious and insightful writing. Downloading your new book tonight!

  10. AthenaC at 9:13 am

    100% true that kids absolutely notice race. My oldest daughter is a great example of this:

    – When she was 10 months old, she figured out that if she wanted strangers in public to fawn over her, she turned on the charm for the black women and the Hispanic women. White women – not so much. They weren’t as effusive in their praise, so they weren’t worth the effort.
    – When she was 5, she fell in love with her elementary school principal because as a mixed-race man, he “looked like her.”
    – Also when she was 5, she fell in love with President Obama because he “has hair like her.”

    I mainly felt fortunate that she was able to have some good examples to look up to, because representation is powerful.

  11. Jane at 12:08 pm

    My children are white and in the minority where we live; they were (1 still there), and one never asked about race, but my younger one always does. He never asks in a bad way, but he always says are they brown or white? My older son gets mad at him, but I say he is just asking and there is nothing wrong with that. I talk to them about the fact that people have different skin colors and religions, but that we can be friends with everyone. I also talk about how there are people who don’t like others because of the color of their skin, and that it is wrong, and if it happens to their friends to stand up for them. They are going to ask at some point, and I think kids can understand more than we give them credit for. If it is talked about, then my kids are aware and can stand up for themselves and friends.