Annie Keeling: Teaching children about differences
A child may say, “That person talks funny. And why are they dressed so weird?”
A parent’s reaction might be mixed — from a more dismissive response like, “It’s impolite to stare,” or “Don’t say that,” to a more thoughtful one -—“Well, they have an accent. And an outfit we’ve never seen. They might be from somewhere else. That doesn’t make them weird — just different, and different isn’t bad.”
Children are eager from an early age to learn about their surrounding culture. They are given many cues as to what is “normal.” Interactions with family members and other people play a huge role. So do books, media, magazines, dolls, puzzles, toys, paintings and music.
Children are watching and listening for these important cues. Variations in human differences, like eye or skin color, can be just that — a variation. An uncomfortable reaction to those differences, though, can alert children to pay attention. What significance does that negative reaction mean for them?
Generally, children want to know why people are different, what this means, and how those differences relate to them. Questions and comments are ways to gather information about their own identity and the surrounding culture.
Listen carefully to what your child is really saying when they ask about differences. Ask a few questions of your own to get a clearer idea of what they really want to know and the ideas they already have on the subject.
Be sure to respond to these questions, even if you are not sure what to say. Children often interpret a lack of response to mean that it’s not acceptable to talk about differences.
Sometimes, we are caught off-guard by our children’s comments or afraid to say the wrong thing. In those cases, you can try: “I need to think about your question and talk to you later.” Or, you can always go back to a child and say: “Yesterday you asked me a question about … Let’s talk about it.” Another useful response: “I don’t really like what I told you this morning. I’ve given it some more thought, and here’s what I really should have said.”
Discuss this topic with friends and other family members. You will gain new ideas and insights as you exchange experiences, and you can clarify what works best for you and your children.
What is Normal?
Generally, people are treated differently because they are seen as “other.” For children, anything outside of “normal” may seem undesirable. They may be afraid that if they are perceived as different, they won’t be treated kindly.
It is helpful to challenge the idea of “normal” to see the differences. All of us are born unique with different likes and preferences, so there is no one way to be “normal.”
Teach children to be critical thinkers, specifically about prejudice and discrimination. Critical thinking is when we strive to understand issues through examining and questioning. Young children can begin to develop these skills, to know when a word or an image is unfair or hurtful.
Books can help give visuals to the conversations we are having with our kids.
Children form ideas about themselves in early childhood — long before they start kindergarten. That is why it is important to teach about tolerance and anti-bias lessons early. Our kids will learn to recognize and appreciate differences rather than fear them.
If children are nonverbal, observe and respond to their curiosity. For example, if a child is staring at or patting the head of another child who has different hair than hers, you can say, “He has straight hair, and you have curly hair.”
Children often compare how they look or what their family values with others. Some may express concern about being different from someone else. Children need to be reassured that differences are fine. Parents are instrumental in helping to bridge the norms, the attitudes, and the ways of doing things in cross-cultural experiences. They are essential role models and can counteract any demeaning and harmful messages.
It is important to let children know from an early age that name-calling of any kind, whether it’s about someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical challenges, religion, special needs, or any other difference is hurtful and wrong. Don’t let racist, prejudicial, or insensitive remarks go by without intervening. Draw a line in the sand. It might feel harsh, but the ripples of your courage today will shape tomorrow.
Create opportunities for children to interact and make friends with people who are different from them. Children learn best from concrete experiences.
Teach Diversity, Resist Discrimination
While teaching children to see similarities is important, the goal is not to eliminate our differences. Studies show that ignoring differences actually makes discrimination worse. When similarities and differences are acknowledged at the same time, kids will find they can learn from people who aren’t like them.
If possible, involve other families in sharing their traditions with your family. Try to expose children to role models from their own culture as well as to those from other cultures. When children see adults develop positive relationships with people who are different, it offers an important model and teaches children to value such relationships.
Parents are the most important role models. We can foster a positive sense of self in children through our own words and actions. We can affirm humanity’s rich diversity and make bridges across cultures and traditions.
Sometimes there is less cultural diversity in a small, rural town compared to a large city. The more that children have a healthy foundation and understanding about who they are and where they came from, the more they learn to move with confidence and grace within communities different from their own, no matter what age they encounter them. This is how we build a world filled with well-being and respect for all.
Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. Contact Annie for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-268-5086.
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