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A Question of Color

During a family trip to a shopping mall, Amber Molock, a friendly, 3-year-old African American child, walked up to a middle-aged white man dressed in overalls. "Hi! Give me a hug," said the little girl. According to Amber's mother, the man looked at her "like he was going to throw up," and Amber, stunned and confused, retreated.

In seconds, children can be catapulted into the bewildering world of race relations, suddenly being made aware that their skin color matters, even if they are still far too young to articulate or understand it. Unlike many children who suffer the slings and arrows of racial prejudice, Amber was lucky enough to have a mother who knows her way around the race card. Sherry Davis Molock, in addition to being Amber's mother, is director of the clinical psychology program at Howard University. In counseling her daughter about the incident in the mall, she followed the advice she gives other parents: Keep the explanation simple. "I told her, 'Everyone doesn't know you. And not everyone likes to be hugged. If someone thinks you're yucky, it's their problem. There is nothing wrong with you.'"

First Cues

Parents need to be aware that young children easily pick up information and value judgments from a variety of sources, including preschool, television news and family programs, relatives, and books. "Children as young as 3 begin to notice differences in skin color, and their ability to articulate their observations starts to expand a year or two later," says Molock. At the same age, children are learning about color in general. "They may inadvertently say something hurtful, such as, 'You're a blackie,'" says Dr. Carlotta Miles, a Washington, DC, psychiatrist. "In fact, they are simply saying something that, to them, is factual."

At 4 years old, a child has absorbed plenty of information about cultural values, building a foundation for later social interactions, says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "The fact that different kinds of people exist begins to make sense to them. And it comes at a time when they are especially curious about everything." By the time they turn 5, children have already acquired definite ideas about race, racial identity, and the role that skin color can play.

Watch What You Say

Even for children as young as 2 1/2 and 3, parents must take the lead in setting examples and be aware of the kinds of signals they send. Minority parents in particular need to prepare their children about how to deal with racial differences early on.

In discussing racial matters, direct answers help avoid misconceptions. Aim for natural conversations, not contrived ones. "Parents should make it clear that they are comfortable with diversity and that they follow a strict moral code of treating people the way they themselves want to be treated," says Sara Bullard, a former director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL, and the author of Teaching Tolerance: Raising Open-Minded, Empathetic Children.

But in discussing race relations, parents shouldn't be overzealous. When racial incidents and questions arise, don't launch into a complete history of race relations, says Molock. From a child's point of view, the race issue revolves around feelings, self-esteem, respect, and simplicity. The bottom line is that young children who've encountered racism mostly just want to be comforted.