Teaching about Differences and Appreciation of Diversity


Young children love to sort things by color, or by shape, or by type (e.g. car or train?). They make sense of their world by seeing how things fit into categories. And in most cases, we encourage them to think about classifications – especially when it helps them to remember to put the Legos in the Lego bin, the books on the bookshelf, and the dirty socks in the laundry basket!

But, when they try to sort out categories of people: race, gender, ability, age, and more, we tend to get all flustered. We worry about saying the wrong thing, causing offense, creating prejudice, etc.

For example, consider our approach to racial differences. Children are very aware of different skin tones, even as young as 6 months. But when kids ask their parents about it, how do they respond? Most non-white parents talk frequently about race. But research finds that 75% of white parents almost never talk about race. When well-meaning white parents do talk about race, they often try the “color-blind” approach and say “we’re all the same.” Which mystifies a young child who can clearly see we are NOT all the same. If parents avoid a subject, or become awkward around it, kids may get the message that the topic is “taboo.”

How might our kids’ perception be changed if we instead acknowledge and celebrate differences?

Talk about Differences. When reading books, watching movies, or people watching, talk about differences easily and openly. Note different skin colors, ages, gender expressions, weight, ability, clothing / hairstyles, languages spoken, family compositions, and more. Use descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, disabled, multi-racial. (As they get older, we’ll help them learn that no one can be defined by any one label. But, as they start to sort things out, talking about differences builds vocabulary and context for understanding the broader world.)

Be careful not to add in biased judgments or stereotypes when talking about differences: “She’s only got a mama, no daddy. That must be hard for her.” “He’s Asian, I bet he does well in school.” “She likes sports? She must be a tomboy.”

Talk about Commonalities. We shouldn’t ignore the differences and only talk about commonalities. But, once you’ve acknowledged a difference your child has noticed, you can also talk about universal needs and common interests. “You’re right, her skin is a different color than yours. Her ancestors came from a different part of the world than ours did. I saw you guys played soccer together for a long time – it seems like she likes it as much as you do.” “Yes, you have just me as your parent, and most of your classmates have two parents – sometimes a mom and a dad, sometimes two moms or two dads. But all of you get lots of love and snuggles, right?” “They wear those special clothes as part of their religion. We don’t wear special clothes, but we do celebrate special holidays because of our religious beliefs.”

Answer Questions about Differences. I have a visible handicap, and it’s pretty common for me to overhear a child saying “mama, how come that lady only has one leg?” Some parents ignore the question, change the subject, or “shush” the child. That tells the child this is something that is “not OK” to talk about. It implies that disability is something shameful or embarrassing to discuss, either for them or for me. Instead, when your child asks questions about differences, try these approaches:

  • Acknowledge the difference – “you’re right, and that’s different than what you’re used to.”
  • After acknowledging it, you could say “we’ll talk about it later” or you could address it now.
  • Give a simple answer to the question, it you know it: “Those are called crutches. They help her to walk.” Or, if you don’t know, you might say “I don’t know why she has one leg… some people are born without one and sometimes they lose a leg in an accident.”
  • Try to figure out how your child is feeling. If they’re simply curious and wanting to learn something, then answer the question they asked. If you sense there’s any fear or discomfort for them, make some guesses about what that is and address it.

Actively expose your child to other perspectives: Eat at ethnic restaurants, attend cultural festivals, visit museums which focus on other cultures, read books and see movies from many countries, learn bits of other languages. Seek out multi-generational communities – make friends with people of all ages. Connect with queer families. Attend public events hosted by faith communities. Choose to live in a diverse neighborhood and/or attend a diverse school.

Choose children’s books which teach about diversity. Look here for info on how to evaluate books (and other media): http://www.teachingforchange.org/selecting-anti-bias-books and here for recommended books www.childpeacebooks.org/cpb/Protect/antiBias.php

Talking about Inequity. In the early years, we can focus on building an appreciation for, and understanding of, a wide variety of differences.

As they get older (around early elementary school), then we add in that even though we’re different, we all have the same rights and deserve the same fair treatment.

As they get even older (by age 10 or so), we can refine that into “we should all have the same rights and opportunities, but we don’t. What can we do together to help increase everyone’s access to the same opportunities?”

And with teens, we can add in discussion of systemic oppressions – classism, ableism, homophobia, and so on. If you think you can skip these discussions, you likely are coming from a place of privilege. As a white parent, I can choose whether or not to talk about this. If my kids had brown skin, it’s not an option to not talk about it. Check out this article on how white parents talking about racism can help their kids support friends of color: www.scarymommy.com/black-child-friends/

In an increasingly diverse society, the more we try to pretend racism and sexism and such are things of the past, the more we allow them to persist. Having open and honest conversations about diversity will help us work together toward a more equitable society for all.

Learn more: Even Babies Discriminate – excerpt from Nurture Shock: http://mag.newsweek.com/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html; Teaching Young Children to Resist Bias, from NAEYC: www.cccpreschool.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Teaching-Children-to-Resist-Bias4.pdf; What White Children Need to Know About Race: http://www.nais.org/magazines-newsletters/ismagazine/pages/what-white-children-need-to-know-about-race.aspx

Talking to Toddlers about Race

As parents, we believe our role is to teach children about the world. One of the things ‘good parents’ do is play sorting games with our kids: the ability to sort things is essential to lots of future learning, so we are justifiably proud when our young child can sort all the red toys into one pile and all the blues into another pile, or when they can find all the cows in a group of barn toys, or put a group of objects in order from largest to smallest. We are excited that they have learned to distinguish similarities and differences between things.

And yet, there’s a whole category of similarities and differences we’re hoping they won’t notice. Most of us have a story of walking through the mall and hearing a child loudly blurt out “that man is really fat” or “hey, that lady only has one leg” or “look how dark that guy’s skin is.” And then the parent desperately shushes the child, hoping that no one has heard. Then they just drag them quickly down the hallway and into a store to distract them from the subject… and never come back to it.

Or, the more enlightened parents may try to speak to the child about it, but do it in an odd “code” which tries to validate the personhood of the person they’re talking about (which is good) but without really acknowledging the difference that the child noticed (which is confusing for the child). As Bronson and Merryman say in Nurture Shock, “every parent [in a study] was a welcoming multi-culturalist, embracing diversity. But… hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles in the home – like “everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us”… but they had almost never called attention to racial differences. They wanted their children to grow up color-blind.”

But our children are not color blind! I clearly remember a moment with my oldest when she was less than six months old… maybe even as young as 3 months. She was fussing in an Indian restaurant, and the owner picked her up to dance her around the room a little and show her the artworks on the wall. She never looked at the artwork. She gazed at his face. He was very dark-skinned and the contrast between his skin and his white teeth and eyes fascinated her and all she did was stare at her face, obviously creating in her brain a whole new category of what people can look like.

Our kids notice differences.

They ask ’embarrassing’ questions. They point to people on the bus. They blurt out their observations in malls. (They learn to stop doing that by age 5 or so.)  And the parents shush them. The parents’ shushing sends the message of “Don’t talk about that! That’s a bad thing!” A young child is not sophisticated enough to get the message that the parents intend – something about not hurting the feelings of the person called out. The young child has learned that the difference they noticed (whether obesity, handicap, race, or whatever) is bad and shameful and not to be mentioned in polite company.

When parents don’t talk about race and other differences openly, our children are left to draw their own conclusions. So, amongst the parents who never talked about race, what impressions were their kids left with? “14% said outright, ‘no, my parents don’t like black people’ and 38% … answered ‘I don’t know [how my parents feel about black people.]'”

Bronson and Merryman tell the story of one of their own children. He was raised in a diverse neighborhood and school with parents who tried hard never to highlight the differences between people because they wanted a non-racist “color-blind” child. At almost five years old, he never mentioned skin color. They thought things were going perfectly.

“Then came Martin Luther King Jr. day at school… that weekend, [the son] started pointing at everyone, proudly announcing ‘That guy comes from Africa. And she comes from Africa too!’ Clearly he’d been taught to categorize skin color and he was enchanted with his skill at doing so. ‘People with brown skin are from Africa’, he’d repeat. He had not been taught the names for races – he had not heard the term ‘black’ and he called us ‘people with pinkish-whitish skin.’ … we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase ‘skin like ours.’ And this notion of ours versus theirs started to take on a meaning of its own.” Soon, children make broad sweeping generalizations about what ‘people like me’ do, and about what ‘people like them’ do.

This view of “us” vs. “them” increases. Amongst teenagers, the more diverse the school, the more likely that all their friends are the same race as they are. “The odds of a white high-schooler in America having a best friend of another race is only 8%…. 85% of black kids’ best friends are also black.” (Bronson and Merryman)

Minority parents are more likely to talk to their kids about race than white parents. They tend to do it in two contexts: one is preparing the child for future discrimination, the other is with ethnic pride. In the case of preparation-for-bias, it appears that a little education helps the kids be resilient when they are faced with discrimination. However if the parents over-focused on discrimination, then the child was likely to blame his/her failures on other people – who they saw as biased against them. Ethnic pride coaching helps the child’s self-confidence and helps them be more engaged in school.

Although white kids are not usually coached in ethnic pride, Bronson and Merryman say “white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth and control in society.”

So, how do we talk with young children about race?

Think about the way we talk about gender as a model. We have no concerns at all with calling some kids boys and some girls, or asking how many girls were in their class, or telling them to hand something to ‘that man.’ It’s OK to also use language to label the racial differences that children notice and give them the vocabulary to talk about that. We tell kids ‘women can be doctors and men can be doctors.’ We can say just as nonchalantly ‘your doctor is Asian-American and your dentist is white.’

We can choose to live in places or go to school in places with ethnically diverse populations, and encourage our children to make a variety of friends. We want to help our children see all that they have in common with diverse friends: “all three of you love dinosaurs” or “you both really like to play in the playground.” But we can also acknowledge and talk about the differences: “you live just with me, your friend lives with her parents and her grandparents from India” or “you have dark curly hair and you’ve noticed your friend’s hair is blond and soft” or “that woman wears a head scarf because that is what women of her religion wear.” We don’t want to say “all people are the same under the skin”, because that misses the beauty of our society’s diversity and also does not help your child understand their world.

With our toddlers: We can read books, and watch movies, and look at artwork that represent a global array of people. When reading, watching movies, or people watching, talk about differences easily and openly. Note different skin colors, ages, gender expressions, weight, ability, clothing / hairstyles, and family compositions. Use descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, disabled. We will, of course, help them understand as they grow older that no one can be defined by any one label. But, as they start to sort things out, talking about differences builds vocabulary and context for understanding the broader world.

With our preschoolers: We can’t say “we’re all equal”, because sadly that’s not true in our society. We can say “we all have equal rights” and “we all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our race and religion.” We can teach our young children about respect for others and about justice and equality.

When these children reach elementary school, they will begin to notice inequities. They may talk about how someone has a bigger house with more toys, or they may notice that children eat subsidized breakfast at school, or they may notice that children get picked on for the color of their skin. Then we can begin discussions about racism and inequality. We’ve already given them the vocabulary to describe difference. We’ve given them the value of equal rights. Now, and as they get older, we can talk about our roles in moving our society toward that ideal of equal rights for all.

Read Bronson and Merryman’s chapter on race here:
www.newsweek.com/even-babies-discriminate-nurtureshock-excerpt-79233 and some discussion questions to reflect on after reading it: https://suite.io/lynn-brogan/29we2rj