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Are We Failing Our Kids by Failing to Talk About Race?

Helen Lesnick and Valerie Pichney, the creators of LET’S TELL STORIES (formerly Organic Kids Company) shared some interesting insights with me that I would like to pass along to you.

imag008CNN recently conducted a study with children about race. The children were given five dolls that were identical except for skin color. When asked questions such as who is the mean child, or the friendly child, children generally associated negative characteristics to the dolls with the darker skin color. And many of those children had darker skin themselves. The study found that about 75% of white families and 25% of black families don’t talk to their children about race. Primarily because they didn’t think it was an issue. But silence about race is not enough because children receive a lot of subtle and indirect messages about race. Two main ways that they receive the messages are through the media and through cultural language constructs.

The Princess and the Frog movie exemplifies the indirect messages about race that our children are receiving. Although the Princess is depicted as being African American and having darker skin, the Prince has lighter skin. The most sinister of the characters, the Facilier, is obviously depicted as black. Why isn’t the Prince black like the Princess? In white Princess movies, the Prince and the Princess are the same race. Are children subconsciously absorbing the message that if you are black you cannot be a prince? Language also has an impact. Typically something that is dark is bad or scary. In Star Wars, the “dark side” is the bad side; Darth Vader’s costume is black. These depictions affect children’s perspective on race because they can associate the depictions of darker being bad or undesirable and mistakenly connect it to skin color and race. Parents need to break that association so that children can understand that skin color is not an indicator of other traits, such as good behavior or intelligence.

An excellent way to open a dialogue with your children is through storytelling. Storytelling can convey the concept that what we look like does not define who we are in a way that children understand and relate to. Storytelling is more potent than just talking directly to children about race for many reasons including that they must use their own imaginations to imagine for themselves the imagery and characters the storyteller describes. Then they draw on their own connections, helping them make the story personal and memorable. Stories often incorporate songs, rhymes, and repetition to make them memorable. When children can repeat and participate in the story it becomes their own and it is synthesized into their thinking. Finally, we learn best when our emotions are affected. It is not nearly as effective to tell a child that lying is wrong as to take a child through the emotions of the story, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” At the end of the story, when the child hears the plaintive cry of the boy, “Wolf, Wolf!” as the wolf really is attacking and eating the sheep, the child can truly understand, in an intellectual and emotional way, the consequences of lying.

imag0011Our company Let’s Tell Stories, created a Storytelling DVD series that is an excellent option to talk about race. The DVD, Storytellers Favorite Fables, features multi-cultural storytellers telling fables from around the world. The first fable on the DVD, Croc n Hen, deals with this very issue. The message is that although we may appear different, we are very much alike in the most important ways. It is important to remember that your kids are getting messages about race even if you never talk about it. And if you are not pro-active, helping them to sort out what they hear and see, it is likely that they will develop biases because they don’t know how to interpret the information they are receiving.

For more information on storytelling and the DVD, Storytellers’ Favorite Fables, please visit:

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