Care and Feeding

Colorblind

Do I really need to teach my 5-year-old about race?

A young girl holds onto a teddy bear and a photo of Barack Obama.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m guessing our 5-year-old is celebrating Black History Month at school because the other day in the bathtub he blurted out “Who is Barack Obama? Tell me about him.”

It was cute. But I’m struggling with how to explain Obama’s historical significance in an age-appropriate way. My son has no racial consciousness. He’s biracial himself and we live in a very mixed neighborhood where whites are the minority. The decision to live here was prompted by our economic situation more than anything, and while that has improved, we are in no hurry to move because we have come to like the area and his school.

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Our son has played with a mix of kids since he was born and has never said anything (at least to us) along the lines of “x is black” or “y is Chinese.” To him, he’s either friends with someone or he isn’t and that’s all he seems to care about. I don’t want to lose that just yet, and that’s why I’m not sure how to best present the information to him. At the same time, I want to encourage him to develop an interest in this as well as history of all kinds.

—Colorblind

Dear Colorblind,

That is cute. Kindergarten teachers do such great work, awakening curious minds. And that can be a lot for a parent to negotiate—Barack Obama is an easy one! Eventually, you may have to level with your kid about the death of Martin Luther King, or the fact that this country was built upon the labor of enslaved people. Not easy things for adults to face, let alone children.

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I understand that you see your son’s innocence as a temporary and wonderful condition, and I don’t disagree, but the truth is it’s immaterial whether he has a “racial consciousness.” The rest of society sees him through the lens of race even if he does not; you cannot change that. Perhaps you have seen the videos of a black girl, only a little older than your son, being arrested for having a tantrum at school. I’m sure she, too, has little “racial consciousness.”

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You describe your community as a kind of utopia—though I find it hard to parse that you’re “in no hurry” to move, though perhaps you feel you could afford to live somewhere better? Anyway, regardless of how lovely it seems to give your son a childhood indifferent to matters like race and class, perhaps you should consider that teaching your son about Barack Obama (or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King or Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Serena Williams) will not shatter that. You might also ask yourself whether it’s really possible for him never to have noticed race; kids see more than adults give them credit for, and teaching kids to be colorblind can imply that race is somehow shameful to mention.

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Discussing issues of race will enrich him. He’s 5; you don’t need to cover Emmett Till or the desegregation of the public schools. You’ll find the language that works best for your own son.

Finally, you note that your son is biracial. You don’t specify his dual origins, and it doesn’t matter. Barack Obama is himself biracial—what a wonderful jumping off point for that conversation. A kid as young as yours only understands the world through the lens of himself, and that makes this easier for you. This commonality between him and the former president could lead you to touch on the concept of race. You might think it’s too soon, but I think this is a conversation that should happen (in every household but certainly one with a biracial child) from an early age.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two adorable kids. My youngest is turning 2 next month, and when we recently went to visit his grandparents, they were shocked by the shape of his head. My baby’s head is longer from the back and there is a big flat spot in the crown area.

After the trip, I took him to the pediatrician who confirmed that he does have a wonky head shape, but there is nothing that can be done. Needless to say I am furious at the doctor who only had the courtesy to inform me of this after I brought the issue to him and when it’s already too late.

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Since my eyes have been opened, I am having constant anxiety attacks. I stare at his head all day long. I’ve spoken to few of my friends who’ve confirmed that his head shape is weird but comforted me it’ll get better.

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I am living a parent’s worst nightmare and constantly beat myself up. My husband is quiet about the issue, but I know he’s worried too. I don’t know what to do. I wish someone had alerted me when my toddler was a baby and I had taken appropriate steps timely. Would my child blame me of neglect when he grows up? I am even considering surgery as an option, as extreme as it sounds. Please, any words of wisdom would be appreciated.

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—Wish I’d Had a Heads Up

Dear WIHaHU,

I can assure you that this is not a parent’s worst nightmare. That would be a child who is ill, not one with a wonky shaped head.

Yes, your pediatrician might have mentioned this to you when the boy was still a baby when he could have worn one of those helmets to help shape his developing skull. But perhaps your doctor saw your child’s head shape as an idiosyncrasy, and not something affecting your child’s health, which I assume, based on your letter, it does not.

I do not think your son is going to blame you for neglect over the shape of his head. In fact, I bet he barely even notices it, as you yourself seem not to have for the past two years. This will only happen, though, if you can set yourself free—of parental guilt, second-guessing, anger, and the belief that your son is now somehow less than perfect.

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I understand that you only want to do the best for your child, and you see this as evidence that you’ve failed to do so. But life is unpredictable, and this is, in the big scheme of things, such a small matter. I think considering cranial surgery for a toddler for purely cosmetic reasons is a sign that you’re not thinking clearly. Perhaps you need to talk to your own doctor or therapist to find some peace.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My kids are in fifth and sixth grades, and this school year has put our lives under a dark cloud. All our lives revolve completely around their schools. We wake them at 6 every weekday, shuffle through the morning grind, get them to school, pick up from school, get an after-school snack, and start on their nightly homework. At some point we surface to eat dinner, then return to homework, and finally finish in time for showers and bed. A couple of nights a week this monotony is broken up with sports or activities.

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From the moment my kids enter the car after school I’m met with some version of annoyance, grumbling, complaints, or ignoring. This is usually followed by a sibling argument. We enter our home the same way we have for years, with the expectation of everyone bringing belongings in and heading to the bathroom to wash up. The moods devolve from there. Simple things like signing school forms turn into complaining. I have to cajole them into discussing what needs to be done for school and getting said work done. This leads to more arguing, lots of wasted time, and hours at the table.

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Sometimes I wish they weren’t being given so many papers, problems, and projects after a full school day. It’s usually a 10-hour day for them just between waking and getting back home, then they need to add one to two or more hours to that to do the homework! But their attitudes aren’t only due to homework. They are there consistently, except say, on a snow day or a vacation. Part of me thinks this is normal for their age. Another part thinks this rat race is too much for 11- to 12-year-olds. I wish our expectations would be more on par with age-appropriate downtime and play and things other than work.

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I’m partially annoyed at them for making the worst of something like schoolwork that could be done more quickly, and also just sick of the daily negativity. Are they OK? Am I? A weekend the kids spent at their grandparents was the first nice weekend my husband and I had in months!

Is this normal? What’s going on with these constantly unhappy tweens? How can we as parents improve this situation?

—Too Many Grumps in This House

Dear Too Many Grumps,

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I think you’re right about a lot here. The school day isn’t designed with the adolescent in mind, and our unreasonable expectations for kids—coupled with the general unpleasantness of teens and preteens—makes this period a fraught time in almost every household. Just your luck that your kids are the ages they are. Maybe it’s helpful to think of this as akin to when you were trying to get them to sleep through the night, or potty-train, hurdles that I bet are long forgotten.

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I do think there are steps you can take, though! You’re shuttling your kids to school both ways; is there a bus or carpool situation that might alleviate some of your time commitment? They’re doing sports or other activities a couple of times a week post-school; does the coach or other organizing body have a designated pre-activity study hall where the night’s homework could be done?

The homework being done at home doesn’t sound like it’s going very efficiently. You could set a timer—maybe one hour pre-dinner and 30 minutes post-dinner—and that’s it, to keep the kids focused and from overexerting. If you think this tight limit might affect the quality of their work, I’d still give it a try—your kids may discover they’re spending a lot of time feeling frustrated and resentful and comparatively little time getting things done.

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You could keep the kids separate—one works at the dining table, one at the kitchen table—so they can focus and not fight. You could skip regular dinners one night a week and serve cheese and crackers and bread and olives. You could predicate your kids’ access to cellphones or screen time on their own ability to remember important school forms and stop chasing after them to deal with such things. You could cut out after-school activities altogether, or if your kids are dead set, make their participation contingent on better attitudes around home and housework.

None of these steps would necessarily do much to mitigate your kids’ attitudes—siblinghood involves a lot of bickering, and teenagehood involves a lot of sighing. I think lightening some of your responsibilities might help with your own feelings of being at your limit. You’d still have to pry them out of bed and cajole them through breakfast to not miss the bus or the carpool, but once they left the house, you’d be free.

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You are feeling, I think, a very natural fatigue; you’ve spent 12 years telling the kids they need to wash their hands when they come in the door, and they still don’t get it. You probably have another four years of telling them this before they stop hearing you altogether, but at that point, hopefully, the lesson will have stuck in some deep recess of their brain and will reemerge when they are young adults. This is tiring! Try some of these small adjustments and maybe some bigger ones: Could weekends at the grandparents be a monthly occurrence? Could you and your partner switch off handling the mornings?

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Another thought is to build some reward into the week for all four of you. A Friday night ritual to mark the end of a long week: order Thai food, or cook a new recipe together, or just bake cookies and watch I Love Lucy or something silly. It is never helpful to be told, simply, this will pass. But it will, and you’ll be worried about your kids driving, and dating, and planning for life post–high school. I really think with problems this big, it’s helpful to try some small changes and see where that gets you. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

One of my cousins has adopted a child who is now 9. Due to various medical issues, the parents have not yet told the child about the adoption. They are ready to have this conversation with the child, and they have asked me for ideas on how to broach the subject because my husband and I are adoptive parents. Our kid has known since a very early age about the adoption. Can you suggest any books to read for guidance on how to tell a 9-year-old that they are adopted? All the books I find seem to be for younger children. Any other guidance will also be very helpful.

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—Late to the Party

Dear Late to the Party,

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I know it is beside the point, but I have trouble understanding your cousin’s action, as well as the stated reason—a medical issue? I wonder if you’ve had the same experience as me as an adoptive parent—that social workers and other parties encourage openness around the subject of adoption from a very early age. It’s the way things are done now, a corrective to an age when adoption was seen as somehow shameful or beneath mentioning.

In my household, with two dads, there’s no possibility, even, of magical thinking, but still, I think it’s useful and important to talk openly and often about an adoptive child’s journey into their family. Your cousin has missed an opportunity, but I hope the desire to do this right will guide their next steps.

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To that end, I think they should seek the expertise not of another adoptive parent they happen to know but someone well versed in the needs of adoptive children. Rather than searching for books online, please consider reaching out to your own adoption agency or social worker for a referral to a social worker or psychologist who can provide real support for your cousin and their kid. Best of luck.

—Rumaan

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