While playing dolls with Little Light (4) this weekend, I noticed a few themes in colorism and ableism. We were practicing braiding their hair when she opted for the dark skinned doll in place of her usual favorite, Light Brown Baby, that she’s preferred for a few months. Pleasantly surprised, I asked why she wanted to use Dark Brown Baby and she stated that her usual doll was “yucky.” When I asked why, she pointed at the bite marks on the doll’s hands and feet, which the puppy had made while teething.
We continued playing, but I noted the comment to reflect on later. Twenty minutes later, we were discussing potential names for the dolls and Light referenced a favorite book of ours, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. When I suggested Light Brown Baby might be named after Nyasha, the protagonist, Light countered she should be named “after the mean one.” Again, I asked why and she pointed to the chewed-up hands and feet.
Noticing the pattern of bias, I asked Light, “Do you think now that Light Brown Baby has a hurt hand and feet she’s mean?” Light nodded and said, “the mean sister has chewed-up hands, too.” I replied that I didn’t think that was true, and Light suggested we should read the book to find out. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find it, and our conversation got derailed by snacktime and baby sister needing a new diaper.
Later in the afternoon, we were playing with the dolls again, braiding their hair, and talking about all the things we love about curly hair. I used the opportunity to share my thoughts about the bias pattern I noticed.
“Light, can we please pause the game? I want to talk with you about something. I think I noticed some prejudice in the way you were talking about Light Brown Baby earlier. Prejudice is when you make an idea about someone before you get to know them based on how they look, instead of how they act. Light Brown Baby used to be your favorite doll, but today you didn’t want to play with her and you took off all of her clothes and gave them to Dark Brown Baby. Later, you said that you thought she was mean now, since she has chewed up hands and feet. That sounds like prejudice to me because I know that people with all kinds of bodies and abilities can make kind choices and can also make hurtful choices,” I gently explained. At this point, she was starting to look bored, so I wrapped it up. “Thanks for listening to my words. I’d like us to think and talk about this more sometime,” I said.
By early evening Light resumed her usual adoration for Light Brown Baby, dressing her and carrying her around the house and garden. It was interesting to notice how ability and color were ranked in Light’s eyes. She has preferred Light Brown Baby as “prettier” for months, but valued the able-bodied appearance of Dark Brown Baby over the previous skin-color ranking.
We have been reading, retelling and watching various versions of Beauty and the Beast as a lens through which to talk about beauty and behavior. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe is a wonderful book that explores physical beauty and character, and is also just a lovely read and has been a favorite of mine since childhood. As always, the conversation will continue. I’d love to hear how you discuss these themes in your family. Have you noticed ableist ideas or patterns with your children or in your family? What resources are you using to support the conversation? Where do you feel stuck?
Note: I refer to my daughter as Light as a reference to the meaning of her name, and not the color of her skin. Out of respect for my children I try to keep their names out of public platforms whenever possible.
When exploring emergent themes early educators and families are often eager to follow the lead of the children. We sit on the floor with them creating sand towers, join them on bug hunts and spend hours playing dress up. We eagerly sign them up for classes and purchase books to support their interests and desires. Yet with social justice issues it is difficult for us to see the themes that are children are exploring. Many adults believe that young children are too young to form ideas about gender norms and that by directly discussing these issues adults will create and reinforce gender bias.
I encourage teachers and families alike to take a curious, research-based approach talking with children about social identities. Ask questions, challenge ideas and work collaboratively to support children in building socially just ways of thinking about and being in the world. The following steps can be used with verbal children of any stage of development. Be sure to use language that feels authentic to you and reflects your values.
In the points below I will specifically be referencing exploring ideas about gender identity with children, but these steps can be applied to conversations about any identity group.
1. Listen. Spend a day listening for words and ideas related to gender. Does your child gender toys, clothing, sticks, colors? Do they share ideas about what “mamas” or “papas” do? Spend the day taking notes. Do not redirect their play or change the direction of it. Just listen and write your observations.
2. Take inventory. Look through the books, toys, art, people, etc. that your child interacts with on a daily basis. What ideas about gender roles and norms are they exposed to? What identities and representations are missing?
3. Reflect. Think about the values that you hold regarding gender. What ideas about themselves and the world do you want your child to hold? How are these values reflected in their environment? In an ideal world, what might you do differently?
4. Play! Join your child in creating a more socially just world through play. Ask them questions when they make broad statements about gender. Use dolls to perform gender non-conforming roles. Change the pronouns of children and adults in well-loved stories.
5. Resist. With children as young as three, you can note when you observe gender stereotypes. Say, “I noticed this book shows mamas caring for all of the babies. I know that there are many papas and bapas that care for babies as well.” Encourage your child to ask questions and challenge unfairness when they see it. In our home we frequently say, “Anyone can wear anything they like, as long as its appropriate for the weather.” Repeat phrases that confirm your family’s belief systems and watch the seeds of change grow!
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