How to help children feel it is “all right” to ask questions about differences

todd parrby Sachi Feris

When I was little, my parents had friends with a daughter named Emily who had suffered brain damage during childbirth. As a result, Emily could not sit up or talk.

I remember, when we visited, feeling uncomfortable and even fearful about this girl who was just a little older than I was. I remember having questions that I didn’t have the words to ask.

I recently asked my mom whether she had explained to me why Emily grunted and lay on the floor. She told me she had not. As my great Aunt Libby once said, “We didn’t talk back then like we do now.”

I think I would have felt less fearful of Emily if my parents had better prepared me for these visits. If they had said, for example:

“Emily can’t move her body or talk the way you can because there was an accident when she was born and she didn’t get enough air to breathe, so her brain got hurt. But Emily can communicate by making noises and using her eyes and she loves to laugh and play games…so you can play with her and try to make her laugh.”

In her book, White Teacher, Vivian Paley describes a strategy used by her student-teacher to talk about with differences when they came up in the classroom. In reacting to a child who stuttered, this student-teacher did not ignore the problem but instead, named and defined it, thereby making it “all right (for other students) to talk to Stuart about his stuttering” (1979, p. 38).

When a teacher (or parent) models this type of behavior, s/he is also creating norms that make it “all right” to talk about one’s differences and to question one’s peers about their differences.

Recently, my daughter commented on a boy who happens to have some learning delays, saying, “He hits because he’s a baby.”

“He’s not a baby,” I clarified. “he’s the same age as you are. All of us are working on learning how to do something better and Matthew is working on learning how to touch people gently.”

We went on to talk about how she could support her friend as he continues to work on gentle touching: “Matthew, I don’t like hitting, but you can be gentle like this.” (I took her hand to show her.) Or how she could kindly tell him: “I don’t like that, please stop.” We also talked about what my daughter was working on learning at that moment.

Without a conversation that allows young people to ask questions and satisfy their natural curiosity, adults cannot tap into a young person’s compassion nor can we prepare young people to ask respectful questions about differences (physical, racial, or otherwise). If we cannot do this, we certainly will not be able to prepare young people to take action for equity.

The first step as a parent, even to our youngest children, even to a baby, is to name what you see. That is why naming race/Whiteness is one of Raising Race Conscious Children’s primary strategies for talking about race with young children.

For more information on this strategy—and for an opportunity to practice using this strategy—join Raising Race Conscious Children on for an Interactive Workshop/Webinar. Or to practice on your own, consider Todd Parr’s book “It’s Okay to be different” as a conversation-starter at home.


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.