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Helping Children Understand & Celebrate Differences from the Beginning

December 2, 2020

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

- Nelson Mandela

Children are born ready to learn and it is not only traditional skills that we need to teach from a young age, we also need to foster children’s understanding of their emotions and those of others from the very beginning.(1) By reaching children in their earliest years we have the extraordinary opportunity to shape children’s knowledge, to form their emotional and social development, and to guide them in their development of their character, their empathy, and their understanding and ability to embrace differences. Children are not born perceiving differences of others. It is through the modeling of the significant adults in their lives and in the messaging we send to our young emotional detectives that children begin to form impressions of those around them. Oftentimes, we make the assumption that understanding differences is ingrained in children from early childhood. However, while children begin to note and question from the start, they have not yet formed their understanding and critical judgement of differences. Children are naturally curious, and as they become aware of even the smallest of differences such as hair color, eye color, or body shape, they may look at themselves and say, “this isn’t how I look!” Here is where we can begin the celebration of diversity.

We know from research that children are not pre-wired with bias, but rather they acquire their understanding and develop any biases on societal groups such as gender, race, ethnicity, language, body shape by observing the key trusted adults in their world. Children are sponges and they pick up on adult reactions and actions towards others through verbal and physical cues, and by watching everyday behaviors and interactions. When a child sees an adult they trust demonstrate bias towards another person, that child will then learn to behave in the same manner. Even the smallest cues such as tone of voice or body language will be picked up, remembered, and replicated. Here is the good news: you as one of the important adults in a child’s life can change this negative pattern by fostering connections and surrounding yourself and your children with people and relationships that reflect diversity, and by observing and checking your own actions, attitudes, responses, and reactions to others. (2)

It becomes the critical job of parents, educators, and caregivers to help children understand that noticing similarities and differences is normal, and then to openly discuss differences in a way that promotes acceptance rather than judgement, fear, dislike, or even hate. Children must be and can be taught that differences are something to be celebrated, not something to fear, mock, or run away from. As we look at where we are as a country and as a society currently, we have the opportunity to really get this right! By starting from the earliest age, we can show children that yes, everyone is different. Everyone has something that makes them unique and special, and differences do exist be it skin color, hair texture, body shape, gender, religious beliefs, ethnic background - we all have something “different,” even within families between one another and within oneself. But we also have a lot in common! It is important that we help children to understand that there is so very much we can learn from one another, that we can work to build positive connections with one another through understanding and appreciating those differences, honestly and openly communicating and positively and respectfully interacting with one another.

As the adult, you are the model for the children in your care, and your role is critical to their ability to build empathy, understanding, and tolerance. For parents, educators, and caregivers, it is important to know and be aware that your attitudes, emotions, behaviors, and non-verbal body language heavily impact how a child learns and develops - they hear our words and tone of voice, they watch our actions, and they pick up on our feelings. These words, actions, and emotions in turn, shape how children view themselves, how they view others, how they experience differences, and how they interact with their community as they grow and develop. When a child observes or senses that the adults in their world avoid or are uncomfortable around others who do not look like them, live near them, or even speak the same language as them, children pick up on these cues and they become the basis of their knowledge of others and inform how they act toward and interact with those who are not receiving “acceptance” from adults. Before we can help our children build their social muscles around diversity, we must first look at our own - how do we respond? What does our circle look like? What is our attitude? How do we express that attitude? It starts with self-awareness in being open and honest and recognizing the messaging we are sharing with our children.

Embracing diversity is about accepting differences. Yet to have those big conversations not only with ourselves, but with our friends, family, and most importantly our children is weighty and challenging. Don’t run from these conversations. Thoughtfully use them as teachable moments and as opportunities to learn and to grow together. While it might feel uncomfortable, this discomfort is imperative to shaping the way that our children view differences and embrace diversity. Parents and caregivers can begin by explaining what diversity is, and helping children understand that each person is unique in so many ways. When introducing children to diversity, begin by explaining the difference between something the child knows, such as a box of crayons. Parents can ask their child, “what if all of the crayons in the box were the same color?” and can talk about how different colors make drawing more interesting, fun, and unique. This concept can be related to people as well. After a child understands what diversity means, it is important to relate this understanding to people. Everyone is different, and these differences should be celebrated. A parent or caregiver can help a child to be accepting of all differences by:

Modeling behaviors and attitudes that promote interest and conversation about differences, including abilities, physical appearance, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, family background, and religion. It is important for parents to provide children with live examples of how to be inclusive when interacting with others.

Listening and responding appropriately to children’s questions about diversity in a way that models effective communication, openness, and acceptance towards others. Children are curious; they explore and navigate the world by asking questions and learn from your responses to those questions. If a child has a question about why a person may be in a wheelchair, explain that they need the wheelchair because a certain part of their body might not work. It is important to also emphasize things that this person can do well, all while teaching the importance of kindness, compassion, and care for others.

Participating in conversations together about differences. Begin by talking about the differences in your own family. You can explain differences in personality traits, physical features, likes and dislikes, and relate them to how wonderful it is for each person to be so unique. Those differences are what makes you...you. Then, you can discuss where your family came from and discuss traditions in each country.

Exposing children to different cultures and traditions. This can be done by participating in different cultural celebrations, particularly those that differ from your own family’s traditions. Introduce children to diverse activities where they can meet people of different backgrounds and experiences.

Surrounding themselves with a network of diverse people. When children are only exposed to people of their shared race, they begin to form the opinion that they are comfortable with those who look like them, making everything different uncomfortable. Parents play a large role in ensuring that their children are part of a diverse community, thus shaping their worldview to one that extends beyond what is similar to them.

Reading books together that celebrate diversity. Having books that celebrate differences and include people from diverse backgrounds are important to have on your bookshelf. This helps to expose children to individuals that look differently, think differently, and live differently. Talking about these differences helps us all acknowledge and accept them as a part of our lives.

Redirecting unaccepting language or behavior. Children often have many questions when it comes to diversity and differences. Parents can help correct biases that children have by having conversations, asking questions, and providing opportunities for children to share their thinking as a way of reshaping it to that of acceptance. Asking questions such as, “what was it about that person that made you feel that way?” and following-up with a discussion to provide explanations and reasons to correct unjust assumptions about differences.

When diversity is celebrated from a young age, we are helping children from the start when their brains are ready and open to learn to be welcoming of others and to appreciate and understand that “different” is something we can all actually share. Difference is a fundamental part of us – it’s what is about us, between us and around us. In this way, recognizing and accepting our differences becomes a norm. Appreciating and celebrating our differences becomes an everyday experience and begins to take down walls, build critical bridges of connection and understanding, promotes empathy and tolerance, and moves us toward a healthier and whole society that not only accepts, but celebrates who we are together.

(1) Housman, D. (2017). The importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth: A case for the evidence-based emotional cognitive social early learning approach. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 1-19.

(2) Kitayama, S. Lynne Cooper, M. (2017-2020). American Psychological Assoc Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes

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