When my best friend’s son was about two years old, he walked over to his great-grandmother’s caretaker and gently touched her skin. “Why is your skin so dark?” asked the young boy, who is Caucasian. “I’m from Haiti,” answered the woman, “and most people there look like me.”
My friend cringed, uncertain of what was coming next from her son’s mouth.
“Oh,” he said. “I like it! It’s very pretty!”
Not all such occasions go so smoothly. What the situation makes clear, however, is that children notice differences. As parents, we may be wary of discussing with our kids how people may be various colors, or religions, or sexual orientations, or any number of possible “differences.” But ignoring the subject is more apt to create bias.
In today’s world, with the rise in anti-Semitism, white nationalism and other forms of discrimination, it’s more important than ever to talk with our children about diversity and how it makes our world a better place.
How can you talk to your children about diversity and discrimination? Here are some guidelines from the American Psychological Association.
- Don’t expect to have “the talk” about discrimination. It shouldn’t be one conversation. Rather, let the discussion be open and ongoing.
- Parents often avoid talking about hard subjects (including sex, underage drinking and discrimination) because they’re personally uncomfortable. Keep talking anyway. The discussions get easier over time.
- Use age-appropriate language children can understand, and don’t give kids too much information at once. The conversation will get deeper and more nuanced as they get older.
- Learn to respond to children’s questions about differences and bias as they come up naturally. Help children feel that their questions are welcome, or they might come to believe that discussing differences is taboo.
- Help children understand the value of diversity. A diverse set of experiences and viewpoints boosts creativity and helps kids (and adults) better understand the world around them. On the other hand, discrimination hurts everyone – not just the targets of discrimination. When people are discriminated against, we can miss an important opportunity to learn from them.
- Take opportunities to raise discussions based on what you see around you – in real life, books, television shows and even video games. You might ask: “There aren’t many female characters in this video game. What do you think of that?” or “Do you think that show accurately portrays LGBT characters, or does it rely on stereotypes?”
- Help kids learn how to deal with being the potential target of discrimination. Plan ahead by developing healthy comebacks or responses to hurtful discriminatory statements. For example: “What an unkind thing to say.” “Excuse me? Could you repeat that?” “I disagree with you, and here’s why…”
- If you hear children say something discriminatory, don’t just hush them. Use the opportunity as a conversation starter to address their fears and correct their misperceptions.
- Challenge your own assumptions and behavior. Do you laugh at racially insensitive jokes? Do you cross the street to avoid passing people of a different ethnic group? Children learn from your actions as well as your words.
- Broaden their horizons. Think about the diversity of your own friendship and parenting networks and the places where you spend time. When kids are exposed to people from diverse backgrounds, they have more opportunities to learn about others and discover what they have in common.
Have you spoken to your children about the divisive nature of our current culture? Have any tips to share with other parents? Please send us your thoughts by emailing email@example.com.