As we raise our children, we see endless opportunities for them to contribute to a kinder world, a more accepting society, and a more generous community in the future. We teach our kids to share with their friends at daycare and preschool, and with their siblings. We talk to them about using their words and giving back to their communities by donating toys and canned food to families in need. We also have an opportunity to teach our kids about the diversity around them, and to embrace people who are different from them, whether because of the color of their skin, differences in their abilities, their lack of adherence to gender norms, or their religious beliefs. Approaching this topic with your kids is easier than you think. Curiosity comes naturally to children, and it is an adult’s job to steer that curiosity in a positive direction.
- Begin by setting an example with your own words or actions. Many of us make insensitive remarks without even realizing that we’re doing so. A friend of ours once remarked that he would not want to live if he had to do so in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, many men and women in with spinal cord injuries would argue that they are living full and joyful lives in their chairs. Children hearing their parents voice such sentiments may learn to look at people with disabilities as victims, or people to be pitied. Instead, teach your children about the different, and somewhat creative, ways in which people with disabilities live their lives, in order to educate them about important, but not divisive, differences.
- Make sure to listen. Did your child come home from school asking about a racial slur he heard at recess? Is your daughter frustrated because her friends have asked her to stop speaking with a girl at school who dresses and acts differently from the other girls? Instead of dismissing your kids’ concerns as minor playground tribulations, really listen to the frustration in their voices, and talk to them about the difficulty some people have in accepting others. Help them to identify their own feelings about the diversity around them.
- Don’t play pretend. We all know that different races, religions, gender roles, political views, and religions exist. Don’t pretend that you don’t see what your child clearly sees around her. A father we know was playing in his front yard when a new family moved in next door. The parents were both men, and their daughter was of a different race from both of them. After the new family introduced themselves and went inside, the father saw the quizzical look on his daughter’s face. She knew the new family was different, but couldn’t figure out how to ask about them. Her father took this opportunity to discuss different types of families: some with two daddies, or two mommies, some who had adopted children, and some who had adopted children of different races or from different countries. His daughter internalized his calm, accepting conversational tone, and went on to become friends with the little girl next door, not letting these types of differences get in the way of a playdate!
- Does your home reflect diversity? Think about the television and movies you watch, the music you listen to, and the books you read. Are there characters of different races in the children’s books in your home? Do you see different types of families and different kinds of kids in the programming you watch? This is one of the first steps to introducing your kids to diversity, and allowing them to think of diversity as a natural part of life.
- Does your community reflect diversity? Think about where you live, the schools your kids attend, the church you frequent, the friends you invite to your home, and the business associates you cultivate relationships with. While you can’t enforce relationships to grow in a unnatural manner, you may want to examine the people your surround yourself with. If there are afterschool programs, camps, volunteer opportunities, or church activities that may expose your kids to children of different races, cultures, abilities, and socio-economic statuses, take advantage of them.
- Set rules about words and behavior. We know quite a few parents who set rules about words and phrases like “stupid” and “shut up”. We have a few more to add. Make it clear to your child that racial slurs, ethnic slurs, and derogatory terms about gay people, disabled people, and elderly people are zero-tolerance words. If your children are a bit older, you can talk with them about the origins of these terms, and exactly why they are hurtful and destructive. Ask your kids to let you know when other kids are using these terms, as any behavior of this kind must be addressed.
As you approach these challenges with your children, remember that you are doing important work, and that your work will tap in to that natural affinity for love and acceptance inside each of your children. As Nelson Mandela said, “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.”