Empirical evidence that children are not colourblind

I have to admit that I have carried out two small psychological tests on my own child.

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t the weird Pavlovian type behavioral psychology tests or Harlow and his bonding tests that can quite possibly harm your child.

No, no,no. These are simple little things that are more….markers, of everyday life for us.  The first was the “mirror test” that I did for gee…I guess months? very basically, it was a test devised by a man called Beulah Amsterdam published the results of his experiments with children between the ages of 3 months to 2 years. He wanted to find out at which stage a child gains awareness of themselves. Well…at least in colloquial terms, recognises themselves in a mirror.

The experiment was very simple. They would put a smudge of lipstick on the child’s nose and show them their reflection in the mirror and the mother would ask “who’s that?” A child who has become self-aware will touch their own nose because they know that the child in the mirror is not a different child. Isn’t that just the simplest most amazing test? I’ve always thought so at any rate, and from the time Roz was about nine months, I would use an eyeliner to put a smudge on her nose and play with her in front of the mirror, hoping to get a reaction. For days, then weeks, then months, she would go to the mirror and touch the baby.  The only thing that kept me going is I knew it would happen some day, and I didn’t want to miss it. And at around 22 months, she touched the smudge on her face.

I was more excited than you’ll ever imagine! I have the exact date written somewhere but too lazy to track down the page at the moment.

My other one, has been to see when she will notice that we are all different colours. Many people believe that children don’t see racial differences, than it’s adults who teach them prejudice. And while I believe the latter is true, the former is definitely not. Children see everything. And I mean everything! They spot every fricking difference in a second and will gleefully ask about it in the midst of a crowd.

“mama, why did that man wee his trousers? ” (of a drunk man staggering along the street)

“mama, why does that man have a funny face?” (of a man covered in tattoos)

“mama, why is that woman smelling?” (of someone with hygiene issues on the bus)

I totally cringe!

But children notice differences because this is the way they begin to make sense of their world, and how they potentially fit into it. I often think they are the best scientists because they make observations about everything, then test out their theories by asking questions. Constantly asking and seeking the truth, and how admirable is that?

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We’ve been deliberately not mentioning anything about race because while it’s important to have her aware of it at some stage, I wanted it to be prompted by her….and I wanted to know when it would come up.

Well, it did. It reared its head first on their Christmas play day in preschool. I was standing there in line with her, waiting for the mandatory Santa visit and Roz was messing about with her friend. Both of them were holding their mum’s hand and giving us kisses, when her friend said,

“Look, my mum’s hand has lots of lines here”

Roz looked at my hand. There was a long pause and then she piped out,

“My mummy’s hand is brown”, then at the top of her lungs, “My mummy’s hand is brown. Like chocolate!”

I. Wanted. To. Die.

Not in a bad way, mind. Just…ker-rist child, Here?

Really?

Here?

But hey, date logged and experiment successful.

We are lucky in that her preschool and where we live is quite diverse. While she’s the only mixed race child in her class, they have various nationalities from dark to very blond Russian to Spanish and Redhead Irish. And the school itself has various racial types from various Asian countries, mixed races, white, black and a few same sex parents. So it’s not like she’s necessarily the odd one out. But talking about race is more than that. It’s about the perception of difference and what  this means when it comes to colour. especially her own. and especially when being mixed race is the rare bit.

But it’s been a slow build up of questions since then.

Two weeks ago, she was very ill with the cold I eventually got, and as we sat on the couch reading, she turned to me, àpropos of nothing, and asked,

“Mama, was your mummy brown like you?”

“Yes she was”..

Silence. So I asked.

“Are you wondering why you’re not brown like me?”

and she gave the shyest little nod and wouldn’t meet my eyes. So obviously this had been on her mind for a while.

So I explained that because I am brown and Krys is pink, she was a mix of the two colours.

“You know how when we painted last time and you mixed the yellow and the blue and it became green?”

She nodded.

“Well, we mixed brown and pink and that’s how you are a different colour. Do you want to try it?”

Meeting y eyes now, very excited, she said yes. And we grabbed her paints and mixed the two.

Then we sat back down and I explained that both my parents had been brown and that’s how I’m brown, and both Krys’ parents are pink and that’s how he’s pink, and there are lots of other colours in the world.

She seemed happy enough and I hope I kept it as age appropriate as possible.

I’m glad I waited for her prompt because now she seems more secure in her ability to ask me questions, from “When I grow up I’m going to have big brown booboos like you to feed my babies. yes mummy?” to “and some people have red hair and their mummies and daddies have different hair. How come that’s different mummy?” And I try to explain. And the other week we were in the shop and ran into a mum with a little girl that had down’s syndrome and I explained as much as I could. And where I can’t explain I tell her I don’t know, but we’ll read up on it and see if we can find an answer.

And slowly, I hope she’s able to make some sense of her world and how she fits into the wider one.

I know I still have the area of racism to tackle, and prejudice, and sexism. But I think for now, these small bits are enough.

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If you want to get some resources on how to talk to your own child about race, I found the following very helpful:

Talking to our children about racism and diversity

Teaching tolerance

The danger of not talking to your children about race

How to talk about race with your kids

Children are not colour blind: how young children learn race
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17 Responses

  1. Christine says:

    Love this. Such great conversations to be having.

    • Muuka says:

      I’ve had to really learn to be patient and honest. She’s teaching me so much more than she’ll ever realise.

  2. Office Mum says:

    Fascinating – love your experiments!

    • Muuka says:

      I’d love to carry out so many more if I had more children. Only the ethical ones of course. I’m fascinated by them.

  3. I love how you explained the colour difference and demonstrated with the paint. Super parenting. You are right that children notice everything. It has always been children that have asked me as a mixed race kid and now as a mixed race adult ‘why are you brown?’ and similar questions.

    • Muuka says:

      I didn’t even know you were mixed race Laura! I now have a go-to person for advice if it gets too tough…I hope? Sometimes I wonder would it be easier if she was the same colour as me but then I wouldn’t be learning as much as I am. I have found out so much more about the world through her eyes.

  4. tric says:

    Beginning, middle and end our child learn more from ourselves than anyone else. You are doing a great job. Yes your little one is different, you are teaching her different is not bad. I really loved this post.
    My best friend when I lived in Oz was black. I rarely saw her colour. I wrote a post about what happened the day she came to visit and I tried to prepare my children for the arrival of a black woman into the white world they knew.
    I’ve no doubt your little one will be well able for the world she lives in. Well done you.

    • Muuka says:

      Aww! Thanks Tric. I’ll have to track down your post now and read it. I find that even as she’s learning, I’m learning the impact my world view has for her and it’s such a delicate balance. Their little minds are like sponges and they are so susceptible to everything. I have to be so mindful of what I say and especially the tone I say it in. They’re like bloodhounds for the truth and honest tones!

  5. Love this, Muuka. What a patient, understanding parent you are.

    • Muuka says:

      Thanks Sadhbh, it’s been a slow learning process so I’m glad it’s being put to the test :-). Thanks for the lovely compliment.

  6. Great post. My 3.5 year old is full of questions about race and differences. It’s proven to me that it is human nature. Prejudice is what adults, society, culture teach. I must say, I love how diverse Ireland has become.

    • Muuka says:

      Definitely how they then interpret it is based on the adults around them. And the less we talk about it and normalise it, the more they draw their own conclusions from who knows where. Talking about it head on makes it much easier.

  7. Brilliant post, I totally agree that children are natural scientists, we can learn so much from them. I love your approach and how wonderfully you approached skin colour.

    • Muuka says:

      Thanks Naomi. They really are little scientists. I’m constantly amazed at what Roz tries out. I watched a clip where the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said the same and it totally clicked.

  8. Emily says:

    I just loved this post (have had it bookmarked for days waiting for a chance to read it, and wasn’t disappointed!) My daughter wants to have brown skin and an Afro (I always did too, funnily enough) Sadly, her parents are both of the “whiter shade of pale” race, with flat hair. A lifetime of disappointment!!! I really loved how you explained colour mixing and skin: brilliant.

    • Muuka says:

      Thanks for the comment Emily. That’s mad about your daughter. You’ll have to buy her a wig at the very least. I figured it was the easiest way to show her without venturing into DNA 🙂

  1. March 14, 2015

    […] Muuka I have to admit that I have carried out two small psychological tests on my own child. Don’t […]

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