Speaking as someone who used to be a young dutch child in black face in the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet was something to aspire to. I honestly thought becoming Zwarte Piet was a viable career option. It didn’t matter I was a white girl — because all you had to do was put a layer of black paint over your face. The kids of my generation didn’t really like calling him Zwarte Piet. Because Sinterklaas would call you out when you did. He’d say something like “I don’t call you White <name>. This is Pete (Piet)” He said that on National television.
Back when I was a kid, there were Black Zwarte Piet visiting my school and they would have the same layer of paint as the Caucasian Zwarte Piet. To us, in the 80s, Zwarte Piet was just Zwarte Piet, open to all races and all genders.
What were our parents telling us? Not much, actually, simply that Zwate Piet was a thing and we could all see it was a layer of face paint that was part of the costume. So we didn’t know, but we knew, you know? We never were told it was a bad thing but we also never thought this was about black people. Also this whole thing that Zwarte Piet punishes bad children was antiquated in my time. The worst that happened was that you wouldn’t get presents.
What you maybe cant understand about Zwate Piet — he runs the show. Sinterklaas is an almost senile old man who can’t do much at all. He can’t even walk over roofs. He needs a circus horse to do that for him, if at all. Everything is done by Piet. Checking in on the kids, making/packing/delivering the presents, keeping the books, telling Sinterklaas the who and what and where. There’s always, ALWAYS. some sort of problem during the journey on the steam boat to the Netherlands that would put the whole holiday in jeopardy and it was the army of Zwarte Piets who saved the day (again, national television. There’s a special Sinterklaas news broadcast leading up to December 5th) The reason kids exalt Zwarte Piet is because he is the one you need to worry about. Sinterklaas himself is like the village elder. Wise, sure. But ultimately just a symbol and largely irrelevant.
I am not writing any of this to make excuses. Now that I’m older I absolutely agree Zwarte Piet is problematic. But you seemed to be really wondering about the kids. From the kids’s point of view Zwarte Piet’s blackness is both the most obvious and the least important. The Netherlands can decide that Piet is purple from now on, or better yet, orange, and he would be the exact same character to the kids. And they would go out with purple or orange face just like you saw them going out in black face.