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 about it, how do parents respond? Most non-white parents talk openly and frequently about race. But research finds that 75% of white parents almost never talk about race – they just change the subject. Or if well-meaning white parents do talk about race, they try the “color-blind” approach and say “we’re all the same.” This 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 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. Teach descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, disabled, multi-racial – you can say this just as easily as you can say “look, there’s a girl and a boy in that picture”.
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 football? That’s a boy’s sport.”
Talk about Commonalities. Don’t talk only about commonalities – “they’re just like us!” 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. The two of you 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, “shush” the child or drag the child away from me. These reactions tell the child that my being an amputee is something that is “not OK” to talk about. It implies that disability is something shameful or embarrassing.
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, it’s better to address it right now, but you could say “we’ll talk about it later.” (If you say this, then be sure to talk about it later!)
- 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 just answer the question they asked. If you sense there’s any fear or discomfort for them, make some guesses about what their real underlying question is and address that.
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. Here’s an article on how to evaluate books (and other media): http://www.teachingforchange.org/selecting-anti-bias-books and I have a long post about Children’s Books as Windows and Mirrors, which includes at the bottom links to lots of great books about a wide variety of differences.
Talking about Inequity. In the early years (around preschool), we just focus on building an awareness of, understanding of, and appreciation for a wide variety of differences.
As they get older (around early elementary school), then we add in that even though people may be different, we all have the same rights and deserve the same fair treatment.
As they get even older (by age 8 to 10), 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 wouldn’t be 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.
- 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
If you found this post helpful, you might like to check out my full series on Better You Than YouTube – Having the Hard Conversations with Your Kids which includes posts on how to talk about sex, gender, tricky people, death, natural disasters and other scary topics (for them or for you.)