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Dear David: I'm horrified by my three-year-old's racist outbursts


A new report into pre-schools found a number of areas of deep concern. Stock image.

A new report into pre-schools found a number of areas of deep concern. Stock image.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

David Coleman

David Coleman


A new report into pre-schools found a number of areas of deep concern. Stock image.

Clinical psychologist David Coleman addresses your parenting queries.

My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter is attending pre-school. There is a little girl who was adopted from Vietnam in her class.

Her teacher has said that the others tend to ignore this little girl so when my daughter plays with her, the little girl 'clings' to her, which seems to bother my daughter a lot. Yesterday, the teacher called me to say that my daughter said to her friend, in front of others, that she didn't want to play with this girl because she had a "chocolate face" and was "ugly".

I am horrified that my daughter could say such things. I just went out to buy some books about people's differences but I'm not sure how to deal with this. Can you help?


David Coleman

David Coleman

David Coleman


David Coleman replies: It is shocking to hear the blunt, rude and, in this instance, apparently racist things that children say. However, I think you need to consider your daughter's outburst in the full context of what is going on.

It sounds like she is, sometimes, kind and inclusive with this girl, and then at other times, she gets frustrated that this girl is too clingy. It is good that your daughter is the one most likely to reach out and play with this girl when all the other girls seem to exclude her.

The other, really important, context to consider is that your daughter is only three. Three-year-olds are never known for their tact or their empathy.

In responding to your daughter about the particular names she called this girl, you need to take a couple of approaches. In the first instance, you need to teach her why "chocolate face" is an especially rude name to call someone.

So, your idea of getting some age-appropriate books about the differences between people and how we need to be accepting and inclusive of difference is a good plan. You can have several conversations with her about the range of differences among the girls and boys in her class.

You can keep this broad about things like height, eye colour, hair colour and skin colour. Don't shy away from talking about how some people choose to be deliberately mean by dismissing or demeaning someone because of some way in which they are different.

You can talk about racism, as one way that people try to put other people down on the basis of their skin colour.

Three-year-olds need concrete examples to show how things can be different on the outside and yet the same on the inside. One such example might be to find a white egg and a brown egg, noting their different shell colours but then cracking them both into a cake mix and seeing that they are the same inside.

However, you also need to remember that three-year-olds don't necessarily mean to be racist. Even the phrase "chocolate face" that she used may be something that she heard and simply repeated.

As much as you may be worried that your daughter might be intentionally racist, I think the issue is more about the dynamic in the pre-school class.

For whatever reason, it sounds like this other little girl hasn't integrated very well into the class. That may be because of how the girl herself acts, or it may be because some of the other children are being a bit mean and exclusionary.

Either way, it is an issue that the pre-school teacher needs to address with the group. I'd suggest you talk to the teacher about what you have observed about the way this girl does or doesn't seem to fit in.

I'd be surprised if the teacher doesn't have some ideas to try to include her more, perhaps in some circle-time activity, for example, that involves everyone playing with everyone and nobody getting left out.

At an individual level, you might want to talk with this little girl's mother too.

You could choose to invite her and her daughter over for a play day to see if that helps your daughter and this girl to get on better. It will also give you a chance to both apologise to the mum and to chat about how she feels her daughter gets treated, generally, by the group.

Your daughter already seems to be willing to befriend this girl and that is a really positive place to be starting from. I think that if you consolidate that willingness to be friendly and inclusive with some ideas, other than name-calling, for dealing with her frustrations, that this issue will fade away.

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