by Aiano Nakagawa
Devon Anderson is an early childhood educator working with eighteen two-year-olds in Berkeley, CA. She is passionate about social justice, nature education, and protecting childrens’ right to play. Her dream is to start a forest preschool that provides opportunities for children in urban areas to connect and play in nature. Here, Devon discusses her views of teaching children in a socially just way.
80% of our brain develops between the ages of 0-3. Many of the experiences we have during this time, even if we don’t remember them, can impact us for the rest of our lives. Early childhood is when we form our beliefs about how the world is and people are. That’s why it’s important to talk about concepts like race, gender, anatomical sex, ability, family structure, and sexual orientation from an early age when children are developing theories about the world and their belief systems.
Aiano Nakagawa: When is a good time to start talking about race, gender, and anatomical sex with children?
Devon Anderson: It’s a privilege to ask ourselves “is ___ age too early to talk about X?” Many families do not have a choice whether or not to talk about these things. Some families have to talk about race with very young children for their own safety. Some families have to talk about family structure early on because their children are growing up in a “non traditional” family.
I think it’s okay to talk about these concepts with children even younger than two. Even infants notice race, but two-years-old is when a child usually begins being able to have real conversations with adults.
When children are two-years-old many start to potty train and begin to learn more about their own anatomy. They usually start learning about other people’s anatomy, whether that’s within their own family, or if they’re in a school, they might see other children.
Young children haven’t yet developed a strong theory of what gender means. A lot of two-year-olds don’t yet associate certain qualities with being exclusive to a particular gender. Children in my class ask “do you have a penis?” “do you have a vagina?” really openly to each other without judgement or assumption. They don’t assume that any particular person has any particular anatomy, which is really good because they’re not yet stuck in strict and false binaries. I never say “girls have vaginas” and “boys have penises,” I say “some people have vaginas, some people have penises, and some people have something else.” I’ve never had a child question me on that, it just makes sense to them.
We have a lot of books in our classroom about potty training, and a lot of them have pages that say “boys stand up to pee and girls sit down,” I make sure to change it to “some people stand up to pee and some people sit down.” Language is so important.
AN: How do you discuss race in a developmentally appropriate and understandable way? What are your practices to help inform them on this subject?
DA: I’m not saying you need to go into detail about the KKK, the prison industrial complex, or police brutality, but if your child asks, you can find an honest and constructive way to answer their questions. If you don’t know what to say in the moment you can tell you child “I’m going to think about that and get back to you.”
Usually the questions they’re asking aren’t as big and scary as we make them out to be. They’re often just noticing something about their experience and have a question about it.
The main thing children notice about race is skin color, because it’s obvious to them. As young humans that’s what they’re prime to do - notice similarities and differences in their world and make sense of them. For children to be noticing differences and then for someone to tell them not to notice those differences feels contradictory to them. They’re seeing the world in color and it contradicts the way their brain works to tell them “no, don’t talk about that” or “that’s rude to say people look different” or to physically act uncomfortable when they ask these questions.
In my classroom we have books that talk about skin color and what our skin does for our bodies. We talk about skin from the perspective of why it’s so good, how we all have skin, and how amazing our skin is. It keeps our insides in and our outsides out, and it can even heal itself when we get owies.
We make sure to have lots of different representations of people in the media in our classroom, whether that’s baby dolls, pictures on the wall, or in the books we read. We try to show lots of different people who look different ways, act different ways, and have different abilities, and family structures.
I think about the fact that these children are going to grow into adults with particular experiences based on certain traits and privileges. How is their experience as a two-year-old going to shape their experience later on in their life?
I think about how the young White boys will grow up to have a lot of privilege and I want them to learn how to be empathetic and understand that we all have important and good qualities about us and that no one group of people are better than others.
I encourage all the children to ask another person before they touch someone. My students are all two so they’re very sensory. They want to touch everything they encounter, but I stop them a lot of the time and tell them “you need to ask so and so if you want to touch their hair” then we wait and see what the response is. Sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes it’s not.
Children need to learn they can take agency of their own bodies.
AN: What are some examples of what children might ask, and how we should respond?
DA: A lot of time they’re going to point out something different and ask why it is. It’s okay to be pretty honest with children, but it’s important to not put a judgement on anything. Bringing it back to themselves and their own experiences helps them learn about their own identity and builds self confidence as they learn about other people.
If they notice someone is in a wheelchair don’t say “their life is probably hard because they’re in a wheelchair” or “we need to help them because they’re in a wheelchair” instead say, “You’re right! They are in a wheelchair, because it helps their body move. How does your body move?”
If they ask about someone’s family structure, don’t say, “that child only has a mom” instead say “That child has a mom who loves them a lot and takes care of them. Who loves and takes care of you?”
If someone asks “why does my friend have a penis and I have a vagina?” don’t say “boys have penises and girls have vaginas” or “because you’re a girl.” Saying this excludes the experiences of intersex people, trans people, and/or people who think of their bodies in other ways. Instead you can say “some people have penises, some people have vaginas, and some people have something else.”
Some children know from a very early age that they are transgendered. Telling them that “all boys have penises” or “all girls have vaginas” can be very detrimental to a child who doesn’t feel like they fit into either of these binaries. Helping all children understand that genitalia does not equal gender can help with their self expression and also allow them to be understanding of other people’s experiences.
If a child asks “Why does that person have brown skin?” don’t say “Shh, that’s not polite.” This is a little tricky because in our society it’s not always “polite” to talk about someone’s skin color, especially when it’s different from your own. It’s important for children to not get negative messages in these situations. We don’t want them to develop shame around noticing and talking about differences. Ignoring these differences perpetuates a colorblind ideology at an early age, when their brain is still being formed, that can stick with them for the rest of their life. Instead, you could say “Yes, that person does have brown skin. What does your skin look like? You both have skin!” Then you can start a conversation with you child about all the things skin can do. You can acknowledge the differences, while highlighting the similarities.
AN: Any children’s book recommendations?
1. Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin
2. Shades of People by Shelly Rotner
3. The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
4. Mommy, Mama, and Me Leslea Newman
5. Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman
6. We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates
7. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox