Talking About Differences

Posted January 7, 2020

by Joanne Esser

Preschool-age children are noticers. Their brains are naturally designed to soak in many details of what they observe and then sort and categorize those details; that is the way they learn. They constantly compare and contrast objects. (Think about when you offer your child their favorite dessert – and they immediately compare the size of their piece to the size of their brother or sister’s piece!)

Their brains are especially attuned to noticing differences. Children are apt to recognize, point out and comment on anything that is different from what they are accustomed to seeing – including differences in people’s appearances. Not only do they notice, but they want to find out about why someone looks different.

This is an age at which children are beginning to see that people’s skin comes in different colors, that people’s hair comes in a variety of textures and colors, that people’s bodies come in lots of different shapes and sizes. Many parents have had the embarrassing experience of being out in public with their young child when the child notices someone whose skin is a different color than their own, or someone who is very short, or someone who uses a wheelchair, or someone with another visible difference, and the child (very loudly) asks, “Why does that lady/man look that way?”

It’s tempting to hush the child and hurry them away from the scene. It can feel uncomfortable to talk about differences and easier to avoid it. But shying away from the topic can send the wrong message. This is the prime age at which we should intentionally initiate conversations with our children about all the similarities and differences between people. They are noticing anyway; that makes it a perfect time to broaden the conversation, give them true information and put it into context with our values, promoting positive ways of understanding, accepting and honoring differences. As teachers of young children, discussing similarities and differences is something we do all the time, not as an aside, (such as only during Black history month).

Because the children at All Seasons interact with seniors every day, they have many opportunities to notice and talk about differences that come with aging: the children have caring relationships with people who walk slowly, may use wheelchairs, have trouble speaking or hearing or have even lost a limb. The children feel comfortable looking closely and asking questions. The seniors know the children are simply curious and are not judging, so they are not offended and don’t shy away from talking directly with the children about their questions.


Talking about skin color/race can be particularly challenging, though, especially for white parents and teachers. For white children, it is critically important to have conversations about skin color/race when they are young. Some white children don’t even have an awareness that their skin has any color at all – while children of color often have a keen awareness of their skin color from an early age. In many regions, including ours, “white” has been the assumed default or the norm; we only mention someone’s skin color/race when it is other than white. Children can unintentionally internalize the idea that white is superior. If we don’t talk about skin color with children, our silence also conveys a message: that race is a topic that is off limits or embarrassing. Children may feel that it’s not okay to ask questions, and we miss opportunities to correct misconceptions.

At All Seasons, one way we spark a positive conversation about race/skin color is through the process of drawing and painting self-portraits. Every year we ask children to look at their own faces in mirrors and at the faces of their friends, and really study their features. We talk about specific observable differences in skin color, eye color, shapes of faces, eyes, noses, mouths, hair color, length and texture and the uniqueness of each face. We read aloud books about skin color differences and melanin, and show children photos of people from many ethnic backgrounds with many, many varieties of skin color. The children work hard to draw their own faces realistically and to mix paints to match their skin tones. They compare and contrast “their” colors with each other’s and even give their colors made-up names.

In the art studio, we’ll be spending time this winter mixing many beautiful shades of brown, ranging from very light to very dark, matching the colors of objects from nature and creating a group art piece using all those colors. Then we’ll launch our annual self-portrait project. Children revisit this work each year, exploring it at a different level of depth as they get older. In the classroom, teachers can amplify the conversation using selections of good quality read-aloud books and guided discussion.

Here are a few of the books we may use at school to initiate conversations about skin color, similarities and differences. You might like to read some of them aloud at home to spark your own family conversations.

The Colors Of Us, by Karen Katz

All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color, by Katie Kissinger (text in both English and Spanish)

The Skin You Live In, by Michael Tyler

Happy In Our Skin, by Fran Manushkin

Just Like Me: Stories and Self-Portraits by Fourteen Artists, edited by Harriet Rohmer

Black Is Brown Is Tan, by Arnold Adoff (an older book, copyright 1973, but still a good one)

The Best Part Of Me: Children Talk About Their Bodies In Pictures and Words, by Wendy Ewald