Diversity is a fact of life, however teaching children about differences can feel tricky. As adults we can be a little unsure if we’re sending the right message or how to start that conversation, and that puts us off from going there in the first place. Maybe like me, you were taught as a child that asking questions and pointing out differences is rude.
Regardless of our awkwardness, it’s an essential task that we, as parents – teach our kids about diversity and inclusion, not only through conversations but also through our actions.
Children will naturally pick up beliefs about differences along the way. They may quickly start thinking badly about someone before they even know them just because of their differences (prejudices) unless we spend time as parents teaching them about inclusion.
Teaching kids about similarities and differences is the cornerstone of empathy. This can help them understand their own identity within society and ensure that they grow up to be well-rounded, accepting and kind individuals.
When kids learn from a young age that prejudices should not be tolerated, it allows them to grow up to be respectful individuals who will stand up for their friends and call out unfair behaviour.
Studies have shown that children who feel accepted in the school environment have stronger motivation, greater engagement in classroom activities and higher academic achievement overall. Of course, the opposite is true too. Those who don’t feel a sense of belonging can have poorer attendance and achievement.
Here are eight ways that you can help your kids internalise the value of inclusivity:
1. It All Starts with You
This would be the most important step of them all.
Children learn best from observing the adults around them. They’re little sponges; watching, listening, and learning. It’s not always easy, but it’s important to be the type of person you hope your child becomes. Take a moment to examine your own approach to others.
Are you accepting of family members, neighbours, friends, and work colleagues who may be different to you? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion, and empathy for those who are different? Can you celebrate differences, use respectful language when talking about people from all backgrounds, and avoid reinforcing stereotypes? If you treat all people with kindness and respect, your child will too.
2. Remind Them that Diversity is a Trait
When teaching your children about diversity, it’s important to let them know that it is a trait and not a defining feature of their personality. Or as I say, “It’s one slice of the pizza – not the whole pizza”. You can use simple language for younger children “Johnny has two dads because not all families have a mum and dad” or “That man is in a wheelchair because his legs don’t work properly”. Remember you’re teaching them that diversity is just a part of life.
3. Don’t Discourage Questions
Kids are naturally curious and aren’t aware of all of the negative meanings that can come with it. If we shut down the questions or avoid them, we are teaching them that it’s not okay to talk about diversity and there is something uncomfortable about being different.
When they open the conversation, be curious and ask what they would like to know or what made them think of the question. Provide them with an honest and age-appropriate answer and if you don’t know – you can say so.
Allowing kids to ask the questions from a curious and respectful place deepens their learning about themselves and the world around them.
Asking questions in public can be awkward and leave you silently begging for the world to swallow you whole. It’s great if you can teach your child to ask questions in private, in order to not cause offence. It’s important to apologise for your child if they have been offensive and provide a simple and positive answer.
4. Emphasise Similarities
I will never forget a disability awareness poster that was in the halls of one of my first jobs that said; “Don’t judge what I can do, by what you think I can’t”, and it’s so on-point. While it may feel easier to notice differences, there can be many similarities that get overlooked. Charlie is Deaf and loves to surf, Kim has ADHD and loves music.
5. Language is Important
At different ages, your child might start to think differences are “weird”. Why do they do that weird thing? It’s important to emphasise that there is no “normal” and “weird” – just “different”. As humans – we like categories, however this can cause polarities. What we don’t want is to start an “us” versus “them” mentality.
6. Diversify Your Media
Media is a great way to subtly teach inclusion to kids. Take the initiative to include books, television, music and movies that reflect real life. Depending on the age, streaming service Netflix has a goal over the next five years to become more inclusive, whilst Sesame Street has also included an increased number of diverse characters.
7. Talk About Stereotypes
For older kids, start exploring stereotypes. Sweeping generalisations about a whole group of people are often inaccurate and negative.
To start, use stereotypes that are simple and would fit their lives. Even if it’s “girls love the colour pink” or “short people aren’t good at basketball”. Once they start to notice that general sweeping statements don’t always fit their lives, they will be able to apply this to others.
8. Create Experiences
Creating a sense of “otherness” can lead to fear and prejudices. Exposing your children to diverse experiences normalises these differences. Giving children the opportunity to be surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds is a great way to create these experiences. These experiences include cultural events in your local area or at museums.
The act of inclusivity is a value which we learn through observation of those around us. All of these examples listed are really about choosing to shape the way your kids think about differences – that they are a natural part of life. Once we plant the seed, we can watch our kids grow into respectful and compassionate little beings.