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Christopher Metzler is one of the world's leading authorities on issues of diversity and inclusion. Read more »
We are living in an increasingly diverse world, and this is a wonderful gift. Our children attend schools with children who are much different than they are. For example, more children are being raised by single parents, by same sex parents and in blended families. Many children are non-native English speakers and some are children with disabilities (both physical and mental).
The challenge for parents is ensuring that children learn to accept and respect differences, thus making them more productive adults. But, where do we start? Children don't come with instructions, but they do come with open minds. Much of what they learn about respecting differences comes from their parents. That being said, consider the following suggestions:
Start with us. Children listen to what we say as well as watch what we do. So as parents, we must deal with our own diversity deficits, so that we can lead by not just saying but also by doing. For example, one parent tells her children not to judge people by their color. The family lives in a majority white community and the children have had very limited interactions with blacks.
However, her children hear her telling friends that the blacks with whom she works are so lazy that she has to do their job and her job. If we are to teach our children to make decisions that are not based on stereotypes, then we must do the same. In this example, the people may in fact have been lazy. However, it is not their blackness that makes them lazy - they are just lazy. "Do as I say but not as I do" does not help children become more accepting of differences.
Get out of our comfort zone. For all the talk about diversity, Americans still segregate ourselves into fairly homogenous communities. Teaching our children to accept differences may require that we use the power of the internet to learn about differences, that we seek out cultural activities that are out of our community and explore the strength and value in diversity. It is not enough to simply visit cultural events, eat ethnic foods and thus learn about differences from a voyeuristic point of view. Instead, we must make a deliberate effort to get out of the familiar and show our children we mean it. Accepting differences should be how we live our lives.
Listen and respond. When children ask about differences, start by listening to the question they are asking and the language they are using. If in asking questions about differences they are using hurtful or stereotypical language, explore with them why such language is hurtful. Explain in an age-appropriate manner why stereotypes don't tell the whole story and are divisive.
Don't be blind to differences. Parents often tell me that they want their children to be "difference blind." This is both unrealistic and misses the point. Children will notice that Jouain has a different sounding name or that Yasmeen always wears a head scarf to school, or that Rajiv eats foods that look and smell different from what they eat. They will have a natural curiosity about this. As parents, we must help them appreciate and learn about those differences, not pretend that they do not exist. The question is not whether differences exist; it is what message we are sending by teaching children to be "blind" to differences. Unless we as parents are willing to help explain to children what seems strange or different to them, we will never be successful in teaching children to understand and appreciate differences.
Avoid political correctness. Parents who teach children to be politically correct when interacting with differences are making the situation worse. Rather than teach children the correct labels or names for people, let's teach them that differences are only a part of who we are. It is not the total of who we are.
Parents teach children how to brush their teeth, to comb their hair, to be responsible and to be successful. We do so by introducing and reinforcing behavior that helps achieve these goals. We should do the same when it comes to appreciating diversity. It is only then that we can move from tolerance to acceptance.
So, how have you been teaching your child about diversity? Do you think it's working?