I have just started reading Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s new and critically-acclaimed book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, and I can’t put it down.
Diverse Environment Theory? No. I was immediately fascinated by the third chapter, which is entitled Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better or worse? The authors suggest that modern parents hold fast to the “Diverse Environment Theory,” that is if you raise a child with material exposure to other races and cultures, then the environment becomes the message and you need not talk about race and diversity directly. In fact, the “Diverse Environment Theory” is the core principle underlying school desegregation. The authors assumed that after 30 years of school desegregation in this country, there would be a sizeable body of empirical evidence to substantiate the “Diverse Environment Theory.” Well, that is not the case. What the research shows instead is that if you put kids into a mixed racial environment without any discussions and active learning about the topics of race and diversity, then they will for the most part self-segregate, harbor negative attitudes about other races, and fail to make interracial friendships. In one study, Dr. James Moody, a Duke University expert on how adolescents form and maintain social networks, analyzed data on over 90,000 teenagers at 112 different schools all over the country. The students had been asked to name their five best male and five best female friends. Moody matched the race of each student with the ethnicity of each of the friends they named. Then, he compared the number of each student’s cross-racial friendships with the overall diversity of the school. What Moody found was that the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, so the likelihood that kids of different races forge friendships actually goes down.
Be Direct. So what did the authors determine the answer to be? Start talking explicitly about race with your children when they are very young. Address topics such as historical discrimination and ethnic pride. They suggest that while “shushing” children when they make an inappropriate remark is instinctive for us as parents or educators, it actually sends the message that the topic of race is taboo, which makes it more charged and intimidating. Instead, use the comment as an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about race and diversity.
Two Recommendations. I’d like to offer two unsolicited recommendations: (1) read NurtureShock, as it will appropriately debunk many parenting myths and challenge you to move outside your comfort zone in a very good way; and (2) talk about race and diversity plainly with your children and please feel free to use What Does It Mean To Be Global? as the conversation starter.