How to talk to toddlers about stereotypes

stereotypesby Sachi Feris

On a recent trip to the library, I pulled a book from the Spanish section with two children on the cover, both with light-to-medium brown skin. I showed the book to my daughter and she agreed we should take it home. Without reading it first, we checked it out.

“It can’t be too bad,” I thought to myself. “With two Latino children and text in Spanish!”

We returned home and after taking off our coats and shoes, my daughter sat down on the couch, requesting to read our new library books.

By page two, I realized I didn’t like this book. The boy character was dressed up with a Native American head dress and was shooting suction cup arrows at his cat, who also wore feathers. (Not to mention the stereotypical representations of gender.)

“Ohhhhh no,” I reacted out loud as my brain processed these images. “I don’t like when people dress up like a group of people. That’s not a costume I think is funny.” (Click here to read an article about costumes and stereotypes.)

“If you are going to dress up, like for Halloween,” I told her, “you can dress up as a pretend character like Elmo or like an animal…” my voice trailed off thinking of examples of costumes I found acceptable.

“Or like a bus!” she exclaimed. She had dressed up as the bus from “Wheels on the Bus” for Halloween.

“Exactly!” I responded, impressed with how she was listening and adding to the conversation.

“I also don’t like how the boy is trying to hit the cat with the arrows,” I added. “Animals want to be treated kindly just like people.”

So far, the extent of my daughter’s media intake has been limited to two- to three-minute videos of “Wheels on the Bus” and other favorites. (We particularly like the Mother Goose Club’s animated (and diverse) version of “Wheels on the Bus”—and make sure to observe race out loud to your child as you watch: “I noticed that one of the children is white and the other child is black.”)

But she doesn’t have to be looking at People Magazine to be inundated, even at two and a half, with images that reinforce negative stereotypes about groups of people based on race, gender, etc.

What I do when I see an image that bothers me is as simple as telling her I don’t like what I’m seeing. If her eyes are going to be exposed to these images, I don’t want her to see them and accept them as neutral, which is the message that will inevitably be sent if I say nothing.

I want her to hear my voice problematizing these images. I want her to be an eager critic of media, even at two and a half.

I don’t want my daughter to simply accept what she sees. If she sees a negative stereotype, I want her to be able to recognize it and challenge it.

Additional Reading:

10 Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism

For resources on informing your media choices for your children, please visit Commonsense Media.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.