Kids don’t have to understand race to recognize differences in how they look. So why shouldn’t we talk about it?
Children are not color blind. Although they may not understand the entire meaning of the word “race,” they are able to recognize and compare their skin tone and features to that of their parents and their siblings. I know this because I grew up in a mixed home.
My father is Mexican American with dark skin and features and my mother is white and has blonde hair and blue eyes. They had two children together, my brother and I. Although it may seem logical that a child of parents of two different ethnicities would come out with features that were somewhere in the middle, that’s not always the case.
For instance, I have very brown skin, dark brown hair, and brown eyes that is telling of my Mexican side, while my younger brother was born with fair (“white”) skin, light brown hair, and brown eyes. We look nothing alike, and don’t appear to resemble our parents at first glance. (They are our biological parents—we have photographs and video to prove it).
The physical differences between my brother and I are so pronounced that people often ask if we are dating rather than assume that we could be related. (Gross.)
When I was in high school (around 17 years of age) I was approached by one of my teachers, let’s call her Coach Rodriguez.* She was a Caucasian woman with blonde hair who had married a dark-skinned Mexican man (like my father). She brought her blonde-hair, white child from her first marriage into their family and with her new husband, Coach Rodriguez had two children.
Coach Rodriguez approached me one day because she needed my help. Her middle daughter was having difficulties coming to terms with what she looked like—she had a negative self-image of herself. Like me, her middle daughter Sam* was born with darker skin, dark hair, and brown eyes, while her younger full-blooded sister was born with fair skin and light brown hair like my brother. Sam didn’t look like her blonde-hair older half-sister nor her fair-skin younger sister, and that bothered her. She didn’t think that she was beautiful and as her mother told me, going to a predominantly white school was not helping either. Coach Rodriguez was having trouble convincing her daughter that she was beautiful and to love and appreciate her looks.
So her mother asked me to talk to Sam who was around eight or so at the time. Coach Rodriguez said Sam looked up to me, a star high school athlete, and I had happened to grow up in the same kind of mixed household and situation as Sam. Coach Rodriguez thought that I could offer Sam some advice and inspire her to love her looks.
Ironically, at that time, I hadn’t ever had any issues with my skin being darker than my brothers or my mothers. If anything, I recall my brother being partially teased for being born with fair skin and falling victim to such things as very bad acne and sunburns, things I never experienced. Still, I was determined to do anything to instill confidence and self-worth into my teacher’s daughter, because she deserved to have a positive outlook on herself.
I don’t recall what I said exactly. I do remember saying that having brown skin like ours was a blessing—something that fair-skinned women pay thousands of dollars on tanning beds and spray tans to achieve. And I told her that even though now, she saw herself as different, others saw her as beautiful and unique and as she grew older, it would get even better.
I don’t know if anything I told her was the “right” thing to say, but it helped. Sam is now in high school, and when I run into her or come across her photos on social media, she seems happy and content with who she is and where she’s going.
Having said that, I see how Sam’s situation and the situation I grew up in is a very unique one, though not something that is rare. There are more interracial and interethnic families with mixed children than ever before and the number is growing. Because genetics are so unpredictable, oftentimes siblings are born with features that make them look entirely different from one another. It’s a beautiful mixed family environment, one that I am very appreciative for having grown up in. However, this family environment (like any other) can have its self-worth and self-image issues.
This can also be applied to families who adopt children of different races than their own or with blended families who come together through remarriage. Oftentimes, adopted children don’t look the same as their siblings, and the same can be said of blended families.
So with this in mind, I’ve provided some tips for parents that have kids with varying skin tones and features whether because of adoption, blended families, or the craziness of genetics in a mixed family. All children deserve to have a positive self-image, especially those in beautiful modern families.
- Know that your children are not colorblind.
Although the phrase, “my children don’t see color” is a nice saying, it’s not true. As a child, I didn’t understand the politics or sociological issues surrounding race, but I’ve seen pictures that I drew when I was in kindergarten. I drew my mom with blonde hair and white skin and gave myself dark brown skin and brown hair.
So, yes, your children will notice that their skin doesn’t match yours or that their skin and features doesn’t match their siblings.
- Pay close attention.
If Coach Rodriguez hadn’t been paying close attention or didn’t have a very communicative relationship with her daughter, Sam’s negative self-image or her low outlook on her skin tone and darker features could have gone unnoticed. No parent wants their children to feel bad about themselves, however, the first step toward changing your child’s viewpoint is by noticing. Comparing themselves to their siblings or their friends is a good indicator that they are noticing physical differences and that it may bother them.
- Have a conversation.
Oftentimes, kids want to talk to their parents about their troubles. If they do bring up that they’re bothered by the fact that they look different than their siblings, continue the conversation. Ask them what they think about it and how it makes them feel. Give them a chance to fully express their feelings.
If you feel concerned that their self-image might be low and they haven’t started the conversation with you yet, consider sitting down with them for a chat. Bring up the subject lightly and then let them share. When the moment seems right, share your feelings about how you find their skin tone beautiful, their darker or lighter hair color amazing, and whatever else they have concerns about—beautiful.
- Consider bringing in help.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to bring in a third party person to talk to your children. My teacher’s daughter didn’t believe her mother when she told her how beautiful she was. Sam needed to see someone like her that had similar interests, was doing well in school, and had full confidence in who they were and how they looked. For Sam, that was me.
I’m not saying you need to find a high school student to talk to your kid, but someone that you think they could relate to and look up to. Consider college students, mentor programs, other family members, friends, or children of friends.
- Books, books, books.
I was never self-conscious about my skin tone and I never had a negative self-image, not until I was in college, surprisingly. I often wonder why it never bothered me. The only thing that I can think of was that I was too buried in books that had characters who were strong brave girls and women that were of a variety of ethnicities and races that were doing amazing things. I couldn’t fathom that I was anything less because I had darker skin tones than my brother. Books instilled confidence in me.
There are hundreds of books for boys and girls of all ages that have diverse characters, characters that look just like them and do amazing things. Consider buying such books for your kids and see if that helps their self-confidence.
- Bring diversity into their lives.
Sam went to a predominantly white school and played sports with a team full of girls that were white. She didn’t have many women in her life that looked like her. It never hurts to bring more diversity into your family’s and children’s lives. That may mean joining a different team, getting involved at a local Boys & Girls Club, or finding a club that has diverse kids.
By Alex Temblador
Originally published on The Next Family.
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