Family, Kids & Relationships

Identity Matters, And Parents Should Be Talking About It

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Race, gender, and religion are just a few of the categories that make up a person’s identity. This week, Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago released a new study which revealed that kids who view their identities positively have better outcomes later in life. But how do children form these views of themselves?

Parents play a large role in kids’ positive perceptions of themselves—just by talking. But we’re not doing it enough.

Parents can encourage children to see their identities more positively by talking about their own identities in a healthy way. However, Sesame Workshop’s survey of over 7,000 parents and educators of young children brings to light just how little communication kids are getting about these topics. 

Most parents surveyed named personality and interests as the biggest factors to influence a child’s identity. But about half of them also said ethnicity, religion, country of origin, social class and gender influence both how children see themselves, and how others treat them. Most parents also agreed that these factors can impact a child’s path in life; for example, 68 percent said a child’s ethnicity impacts their ability to succeed. Researchers say this data indicates that parents are concerned that, “for some children, social identities may well be a barrier to the American ideal of equal opportunity for success.”

Yet over 60 percent of parents reported that they rarely, if ever, discuss their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class with their children.

Children are wired to notice differences, and not talking about those differences can imply that they’re “wrong” or bad in some way. 

Tanya Haider, Executive Vice President for Strategy, Research and Ventures at Sesame Workshop, told NPR,We sometimes are scared to talk about these things. If the adults stiffen up and say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that loudly,’ that’s sending [children] a cue that there’s something wrong.”

A common reason for avoiding conversations about identity was that parents assumed their kids were too young to understand the subject, or to notice differences such as race or ethnicity. As Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., President Emerita, Spelman College explains, “Even young children notice group differences and learn quickly to assign social value to those differences, just as adults do. When parents are silent about these issues, they risk leaving their children without the understanding they need to recognize and reject negative stereotypes about themselves or other people.”

Some parents haven’t had these important conversations because they believed that it didn’t directly impact their child. Sesame found that many parents who are discussing these topics were prompted to do so because their child had heard a negative comment about their own race, gender identity, or other aspect of their identity. 

However, it’s important for kids to learn about identity, of themselves and others, whether they appear to be negatively impacted or not. “It’s not the role or responsibility of a group of parents to be having those conversations,” Haider told NPR. “It really is the responsibility of everyone.” 

In April, Tatum joined Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President for Social Impact at Sesame Workshop, for an episode of NPR’s podcast Life Kit where they gave some pointers to parents on how to talk about race with kids. The Sesame survey concludes that conversation is the first, most important step toward giving our children a solid, positive sense of their own identities. Also key? Teaching them to respect the identities of others, as well.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.