01/24/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

The Difficulty of Talking to My Son About Race

Written by Rebekah Kuschmider for

I bought my 5-year-old son The Snowy Day for Christmas. Ezra Jack Keats' Caldecott Award winning picture book is as lovely as it ever was and it's a wonderful story to read to a child during the winter. My son loved it, the rich pictures and relatable text were perfect for him. At one point, he looked at a picture of the protagonist, Peter, leaving footprints behind him in the snow and he happily exclaimed "He makes prints just like me!"

My mind spun in that moment and I wondered if that was a good point of entry into a conversation about equality and race. Little Peter in the book is African American. Should I say something about how all people leave footprints, no matter how they look? Or is that the corniest thing I have ever considered saying to my child?

I went with the corny option and skipped the race talk in favor of finishing the story. But talking about race is something I've been forcing myself to do with my son lately and it's not easy or comfortable for me.

Related: 5 lessons Congress can learn from preschoolers

My son is fortunate in that we live in an area with a great deal of diversity. He has always been around people of different races and, I hope, he's always seen my husband and me treating everyone we meet with the same level of courtesy and respect. I had this idea of a "Sesame Street" model of teaching my kids about race, where, if they were around all kinds of people and I made a point of being equal in my treatment of them, questions of race would somehow answer themselves. However, I recently read Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman and the chapter on kids and race startled me. Basically, the authors discovered that kids see race and they categorize by race, even if they don't know why or what race might mean. The sociology of it argues heavily in favor of giving kids a framework with which to understand race, a vocabulary and some background so they don't assume the worst from parental silence on the topic. More importantly, people of color in my circle of friends confirm for me that there is a need for kids to understand this from day one. So, I made the decision that I need to be forthright about race and explain to my son, in so many words, that skin colors can be different but we need to judge people, to borrow from Dr. King, on the content of their characters.

As a liberal, white woman, this is not an easy thing for me to address. I am the product of much progressive diversity training and I've always followed other people's lead in how they want to discuss their race. I don't know how to begin the conversation. I found myself tongue tied, stumbling a bit in how I would frame race for a small boy whose best friends are boys with Indian, Asian, and Latina parents. He has never asked about the physical differences between himself and his friends and part of me wanted to keep him innocent of the social constructs around race. But it seems more important to arm him with the knowledge that people do come in many shades but that it's neutral information, like height or shoe size.

I had to take a deep breath and dive right in to the subject so I asked him outright if he's noticed differences in skin color between the various kids in his class. He has, of course. It doesn't trouble him at all so the conversation flowed pretty easily from there. We talked about the ways his friends look and the ways they are the same or different from him. I explained that kids look like their parents: their skin, their hair, their eyes are all a result of who their mom and dad are. Then I remind him that the only thing that matters is if a person is nice. I'm probably oversimplifying but he understands the words I'm using and accepts that information thoughtfully, without concern.

There's time enough to explain how environment led to the evolution of different physical forms of our species. Time enough to explain the inequities racial bias and prejudice have bred over history. Time enough to explain the situations in which children don't look like the people who are raising them. I'm laying a groundwork now for him to understand the inherent worth and dignity of all people. If he understands that, I hope he'll grow up to easily see that things like bigotry and mistreatment of others based on race are wrong.

For 5 things I'm teaching my kids about handling racism, visit Babble!

11 mistakes all parents make (even the perfect ones!)
5 topics I'm not ready to discuss with my child
The 10 biggest secrets we hide from our kids
7 things you should never say to a child