I took my four-year-old granddaughter, Evelyn, to an indoor playground. A little African-American girl, Amani, who was a few years older, invited her to play with her and they became fast friends. Amani held Evelyn’s hand, guiding Evelyn to the different play areas, taking turns, and sharing prizes they won at the games. Evelyn’s preschool report a few days earlier said she could sometimes be a little bossy, so Amani served as a positive role model for her.
I ran into another mom I hadn’t seen for a while and started chatting, losing site of Evelyn and Amani. (There was no safety or security issues as this place had a way to verify the right children left with the right adults.) I found a child who looked just like Amani, so I asked her where Evelyn was. She said she was with her sister, Amani, and pointed me in the right direction. I was internally embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed the difference between the sisters, like what color shirt each was wearing. Amani’s mother was right there and reassured me she often can’t tell the difference between the girls when they are apart, either, because they look like twins, except for their age and height.
I caught up with Evelyn and Amani. telling Evelyn I mistook Amani’s sister for Amani. She said, “Yeah, Amani and her sister both have more pigmentation than I do and look almost the same, but Amani is the one that’s my best friend.” I was so impressed she understood and accepted the cause of their differences, in such a matter-of-fact way, and that what sue used to differentiate Amani from her sister and herself was was Amani’s character, on the inside, which was precious.
These two little girls became temporary soul sisters who had a hard time parting that day, nearly crying when it came tine to hug each other good-bye.
I marveled at the ease with which these two girls from different walks of life found a fast friendship, bonded with each other and watched out for each other. I smiled, wondering what the world would be like if more people could be like Evelyn and Amani. Their parents deserve a lot of credit for fostering an appreciation of diversity in their children. I wish all parents would foster diversity awareness in their family, so there could be more friendships like this in the world.
Have you ever noticed how “color-blind” young children are? They might notice differences that are obvious, like skin tone or disabilities, and ask questions, but rarely do they pre-judge others. That’s because prejudice is learned.
How do you handle questions like this? When your children’s express curiosity about diversity, do you ever feel uncomfortable?
Do you want to talk to your children about differences, but aren’t sure how to do it in a sensitive way?
Bringing diversity awareness into your home means helping your children to respect and appreciate diversity, not just “tolerate” it. You “tolerate” something that’s annoying. So instead of tolerating diversity, let’s celebrate it!
When children ask questions, you can explain why people are different and how to appreciate and celebrate those differences.
Here are some tips, from The Parents Toolshop® book (©2000), to bring diversity awareness into your home:
- Plan ahead. Encourage your children to ask questions and make whatever comments they want, but to whisper it in your ear or wait until you’re alone. Allow them to be curious, but explain how their comments might hurt people’s feelings.
- Explain the value of the skill. Everyone benefits from getting along with others, regardless of our differences. By getting to know and appreciate each person’s uniqueness, we avoid prejudice, unfair stereotypes and the problems they provoke.
- Break the task into smaller steps. Children need to (a) understand the causes of our differences, (b) learn how to overlook differences or use them to enhance relationships, and (c) treat everyone with dignity and respect, even people who seem different.
- Let children watch. Be aware of how you treat someone who looks or acts differently. Explain to your children how you came to understand that person’s differences and why you responded to that person the way you did. Explain your thoughts. Sharing your thoughts with your children helps them respond similarly when they have similar thoughts.
- Let children try. Fine-tune children’s skills as situations arise. For example, if children see a child in a wheelchair and ask “Why,” offer a simple, factual, accepting explanation. Avoid using labels like “handicapped.”
- Let children do it their way. Encourage children to smile at other children, say “Hello” or befriend them, regardless of their differences.
- Offer choices. When differences pose difficulties (they want to play a computer game with a partially blind child or play on a playground with a physically challenged child), teach children to explore options for playing together. They can ask the other child’s parent for suggestions.
- Work together. Look for or create opportunities to learn and practice acceptance skills. Volunteer together at a mental or physical rehabilitation clinic, attend services of another religion, and visit playgrounds where there are children of diverse backgrounds.
- Make it child-friendly. Read or tell stories that illustrate diversity and ask thought-provoking questions. “How did (character’s name) feel when . . .? Why did (character’s name) do . . .?” Role-play situations, “What would you do if you saw someone . . .?”
- Offer encouragement at every step. When children make efforts to be respectful, accepting, and helpful to others (whether or not they are “different”), describe how good that made the other person feel. If they don’t talk down to a physically/mentally challenged person or treat them differently, point out how much that person probably appreciated their friendliness. When they control their stares and nonverbal reactions, notice their efforts and the positive effect. Encourage during the early years or stages of the learning process, to reinforce children’s efforts. Once these attitudes and behaviors are their natural way of perceiving and treating others, don’t point out differences or children’s reactions. That would only draw more attention to the differences.
Diversity is all around us, so the more normal we make diversity, the less different it is. By teaching our children how to respond and appreciate diversity, it helps them be more respectful and courteous adults. And if more adults could appreciate diversity, treating all people with dignity and respect, we would have less bullying, fewer wars, and more peace, both inner peace and throughout the world.
Would you like more tips on how to teach other values, skills and behaviors, like appreciating diversity? How about a preview of The Parent’s Toolshop®’s unique Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system, so you can find a completely customized, individualized effective response to each situation with each child? Then get the free e-book “Unlocking the Secrets to Parenting Success: The 7 Keys to Building a Healthy Family — from the Foundation Up!”
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30+ years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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