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Teaching Kids About Race, Disability, and Other Differences Between People

Posted by on in Character Training
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“Mommy, they're talking funny!”

“Why does she walk like that?”

“Why is his face brown?”

“What’s wrong with that lady?”

Why is it that kids always ask those questions so loudly? People usually understand that our little ones are just discovering the world, rather than being prejudiced, but it can still be mortifying when they ask awkward questions!

Can we do anything to pre-empt these kinds of questions? How do we respond to them? How do we cultivate the respect for diversity that we want our kids to have?

Dealing With the Questions

Preschoolers aren’t really capable of thinking inside their heads. Pretty much everything that goes through their brains comes out of their mouth. (You’ll see this as kids learn to count. Even if you tell them to count quietly, they will mouth the numbers because they can’t do it internally.) So when they encounter something they haven’t seen before, you can expect them to comment on it. Try not to pass your embarrassment on to your child, but rather to answer in an upbeat manner.

Try to look at their questions in a positive way. Kirby’s friend Sarah uses a wheelchair. She says that actually, kids are the easy ones to deal with. Adults sometimes avoid her because they feel awkward. She much prefers when people (kids or adults) just ask her about her disability.

In fact, asking is great, because the more information kids have, the more accepting and inclusive they can be. My (Christen’s) brother-in-law is deaf. When he was young, kids in the neighborhood were making fun of him. His mother, instead of scolding them, decided to go talk to them and teach them some sign language. The kids got really into it and began including her son in their play.

For preschoolers, we give simple messages about differences. When our child asks a question about race, we might say, “Yes, we are all different. We have different eyes, different hair, different skin. Isn’t it neat that we don’t all look alike? Everyone is so special!”

When a child asks about a disability, we might say, “When people have braces on their feet, they are trying to help their legs grow nice and strong. Shall we go ask her about it?”

A message that bears repeating thousands of times to your kids is “Everyone is special!”

Providing Experience

Experience is an even better teacher than words for preschoolers. They need to experience that outside differences don’t make people scary—that we are the same inside.

You can carry small treats with you. When your child notices someone of a different ethnicity, someone speaking another language, or someone with a disability, you can hand your child two treats and suggest that she give one to the other person. (Kirby has seen this be really touching for elderly people as well—for a child to go up and offer them a piece of candy.) Sharing something helps kids feel connected to the other person.

Teach your child tools for connecting with others. If they seem surprised by another person’s appearance, you can ask, “Let’s say hello and shake hands!” If they are feeling too shy, you can say hi yourself, demonstrating that it’s safe to connect.

Intentionally create experiences for your child to interact with people who are different from them. Go to playgrounds where people from different backgrounds play. Let your child see you strike up conversations with kids or adults that may be different than you. Try to take part in activities that draw old and young, people of different abilities, and people of different races.

Giving Input

While parental modelling is extremely important, we can’t underestimate the power of messages kids receive from the culture. Does their preschool have white teachers and black janitors? What does that subconsciously communicate? How do they see race and disabililty represented on tv? Are they exposed to differences in the books you read as a family?

We can't control most of the messages they get from the world around us. We can, however, make sure we are providing lots of positive input that can counteract some of those messages.

Books are a great way to introduce the concepts of race or disability in a context where no one will be offended by questions. Get books where the main characters are of different races. Read about famous people, making sure to include men and women, minorities, differently abled people, and people of different religions. Ask your children’s librarian for recommendations.

Music is highly memorable and goes to a different part of the brain than spoken messages. So songs about love and respect, diversity, or that present differences in a positive way can be effective ways to get those messages into your kids’ minds. Here’s one website that has some songs like this.  But do a little browsing and find songs that fit a style you like.

Embrace the new! Try foods from other countries, and learn words in other languages. Play games from other cultures. I have a great Gallo Pinto recipe that I discovered when doing a Costa Rica day with my kids several years ago.

Be mindful of what your child watches on tv. A lot of children's shows make an effort to present diversity positively, but it's good to be aware of what subtle messages kids are absorbing through what they watch.

If You’re Embarrassed

Kids are still bound to say embarrassing things. A great way to handle this is to say to the other person, “We’re working on better ways to say things when we’re surprised by something.”

And of course, most of all, let your love and respect for others shine through, and your children will learn from you!

P.S. Here is a great article to read that specifically deals with race.

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Photo Credit: Liz Henry via Compfight cc