As societal beliefs and customs are rapidly changing, our children’s sensitivity to others’ new normals may not be up to speed. Starting a discussion with your kids is a great way to open up the doors to learning, but you also have to practice what you teach.
1. Confront outdated beliefs. You might begin by reflecting on your own childhood upbringing. Take time to think how you might be projecting obsolete ideas onto your child, then make a conscious attempt to temper them so that you don’t unintentionally taint their views.
2. Encourage open and accepting minds. Parents who think through how they want their kids to turn out usually succeed because they’ve planned their parenting efforts. If you really want your child to respect diversity, you must adopt a conviction early on to raise them to do so. Once they know your expectations, they’ll be more likely to embrace your principles.
3. Cultivate pride in their own culture. Learning about their family background helps children connect with their heritage and develop an appreciation and respect for not only their own national and ethnic backgrounds, but also for those of their friends and classmates.
As Barbara Mathias and Mary Ann French, authors of 40 Ways to Raise a Nonracist Child, explain, “Once your child has a solid sense of self and pride in [their] own people, it will be easier for [them] to find joy in the differences of others.”
4. Disallow discriminatory comments. When you hear prejudicial comments, verbalize your displeasure. How you respond sends a clear message to your child about your values: “That’s disrespectful and I won’t allow such things to be said in my house,” or “That’s a biased comment, and I don’t want to hear it.” Your child needs to hear your discomfort so that they know you really walk your talk. It also models a response they should imitate if prejudicial comments are made in their presence.
5. Embrace diversity. From a young age, expose your child to positive images – including toys, music, literature, videos, public role models and examples from TV or newspaper reports – that represent a variety of ethnic groups. Encourage your child, no matter how young, to have contact with individuals of different races, religions, cultures, genders, abilities and beliefs. The more your child sees how you embrace diversity, the more prone they’ll be to follow your standards.
6. Emphasize WE, not ME. Encourage your child to look for what they have in common with others instead of how they are different. Any time your child points out how they are unlike someone else, you might say, “There are lots of ways you are different from other people. Now let’s try to think of ways you are the same.”
7. Give straightforward, simple answers. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? stresses the importance of answering children’s questions simply and honestly, even though some issues may seem embarrassing or even taboo. How you respond can either create stereotypes or prevent them from forming. For very young kids, usually a one- or two-sentence answer is enough:
CHILD: Sally’s a girl – she shouldn’t be playing football!
PARENT: Girls can play the same sports boys do. Some girls like football, some don’t. Sally likes to play football, so she should play football.
CHILD: Why is that boy sitting in a chair that moves?
PARENT: That’s a wheelchair; it has a motor. The boy’s legs don’t work the same as yours, and the wheelchair is what he uses to get from place to place.
8. Counter biased beliefs. When you hear a child make a prejudicial comment, find out why they feel the way they do. Then gently challenge their views and point out why they’re incorrect. For example, if your child says, “Homeless people should just get jobs,” you might counter: “There are many reasons homeless people don’t work or have houses. They may be ill or can’t find jobs. Houses cost money, and not everyone can pay for one.”
9. Model tolerance. Ask yourself one critical question every day: “If my child had only my behavior to copy, would they be witnessing an example of what I want them to emulate?”
10. Nurture understanding. Just as hatred, bigotry, prejudice and intolerance are learned, so too are sensitivity, empathy and acceptance. The sooner we start, the better chance we have of preventing small-minded attitudes and behaviors from taking hold – and inspiring children to live more harmoniously in this global world.
Michele Borba, Ph.D. is the author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.