Teaching Young Children to Respect and Celebrate Differences

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Teaching children to respect differences

Young kids are continually in awe of the world around them. They take in new information, process observations and ask questions about what they see—sometimes loudly and at inopportune moments, about differences in skin color, gender, size, abilities, clothing and more.

While it may be cringeworthy for you, know that these questions are coming from a non-judgmental, genuinely curious place. These awkward moments with toddlers and preschoolers offer opportunities to teach them about celebrating and respecting all people, a topic that is increasingly important as our world becomes more diverse and society tackles complex cultural issues. As a parent, how do you raise children who respect and celebrate differences, who are inclusive, and who recognize and stand up to prejudice and stereotypes? It’s never too early to begin instilling these important values. Here’s a few tips to get you started.

Model the behaviors you want to see.
Respecting others, celebrating differences and being inclusive starts at home. As parents, it is critical that we are showing our young children how to embrace diversity by acting and speaking in ways that are in line with these values. Start by examining your own behaviors and beliefs. Avoid making “harmless” jokes that reinforce stereotypes or labeling people based on differences. How you treat others will set the stage for how your children interact with the world. Remember: Our kids are watching.

Build your child’s self-esteem.
Want to increase the odds that you’re raising a child who embraces diversity? Focus on building your child’s self-esteem. Self-confident kids are more likely to be accepting of others, trust their own decisions, not follow the crowd, and stand up for what they believe is right. Showering kids with compliments won’t do the trick. Instead, accept your children for who they are, provide them with emotional support, and give them the opportunity to be independent, learn for themselves, work toward goals, and fail and succeed on their own.

Expose your child to new experiences.
It’s not uncommon for people to live in communities where their neighbors look like them, belong to the same social circles, have familiar religious beliefs, and are in similar professional and economic situations. Push beyond your comfort zone and introduce your children to a range of people, experiences and religious traditions. If you don’t live in a diverse area, visit museums and other cultural institutions, read about diversity (try People, an award-winning children’s book), and choose media that positively portrays differences (Sesame Street is always a good choice). Take trips—day trips or longer vacations—to places that offer your family the opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world.

Be ready with answers.
It’s inevitable—your inquisitive child is going to ask about why people look or act differently. Here’s how to be prepared with an answer:

  • Focus on the positive. When you’re in public, the best way to respond to your child’s observations about race, abilities, size, clothing, language or gender is to be positive, direct and honest. When your child points out differences, try responding with, “Yes, the world is very big and not everyone looks like you. Our differences make the world more interesting.” Remind your child that commenting on or asking about physical appearance in public can make people feel uncomfortable. Apologize on behalf of your child if necessary, then plan to address the situation privately later.
  • Talk to your child about why she asked. Younger kids don’t have preconceived notions about differences, so it’s important to find out why they asked. Then tell them the truth. If your child noticed someone in a wheelchair and wants to understand why, tell her that the person uses a wheelchair to get around, just like your child uses her legs. Keep your answers age appropriate—there’s no need to get too detailed or technical.
  • Don’t pretend differences don’t exist. Sometimes the knee-jerk reaction to a child’s observation about differences is to insist that we’re all the same. For example, “color blindness,” while often good intentioned, fails to acknowledge the multicultural and multiethnic society our children are growing up in. Try taking a nuanced approach: Acknowledge differences and how they make each of us special, while reminding a child that even though someone looks or acts different, it’s possible to find plenty of common ground and similarities—like favorite games and toys.
  • Reinforce good manners. Young children are not aware of social norms like adults or even older children are. If your child has an audience when he asks why a person is different, remind him that it’s not polite to question other people’s appearances while in public. Reassure your child that if he has questions, he can ask mom or dad later.

Be prepared for the conversation to change.
According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, from ages 5 to 8, children begin to judge others based on similarities and differences, but they are still flexible in their belief system. The values parents instill during this time will likely stick with kids as they get older, meaning that it is critical to address issues like racism and bullying. Use your child’s questions as a natural segue to a conversation about these tougher topics.