Learning About Diversity

Talking to Your Child about Diversity

Learning about diversity is a wonderful opportunity for you and your child to bond. Let her feel comfortable with her curiosity about the diversity in the world. As you work together, your child will learn to feel positive about herself and others. You don't have to wait for your child to ask questions to begin talking about diversity. It can be a natural part of your everyday relationship as you explore the world together and build relationships outside the family.

Young children can be blunt and direct as they notice and point out the differences between people. That might make you feel uncomfortable, especially in public settings. Remember that your child probably didn't intend to be hurtful, he is just curious about and becoming more aware of the world's diversity.

Here are some things to consider as you talk to your child:

  • Treat all questions with respect and seriousness, no matter how awkward or embarrassing (or even funny) they may seem to you. It's important not to silence your child by saying things such as, "Shhh. That man does look different. Just pretend you didn't notice it." Say things such as, "You're right. That man does look different from us. We must look different to him, too."
  • Understand what your child is really asking. It is important that you understand what is being asked and why. A good way to do this is first to repeat the question back to your child to be sure you understand what she really wants to know.
  • Answer questions as clearly and honestly as you can. Give short, simple answers that your child can understand. Avoid overexplaining. If you don't know an answer, say so and make a plan to find out. Give your child simple, factual answers to questions rather than saying things such as, "We're all the same underneath our skin."
  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Correct yourself if you give a wrong or incomplete answer.
  • Address any biased comments your child makes, such as, "Alex talks funny." You could respond, "Alex is learning to speak English. That is why he sounds a little different than you. You shouldn't say he talks funny. That could hurt his feelings." And of course, make sure to look at what you are saying and check your own comments.
  • Teach your child that words can hurt. Your child needs to know that hurtful words are unacceptable. Let him know that it is valid to to feel hurt when called names; don't say things such as, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never harm me."
  • Give your child time to grow. This is a lifelong learning process for both you and your child.

Language Makes a Difference

Be aware of the power of your words. Some words you use can casually perpetuate stereotypical notions. Do you describe children as acting like a bunch of "wild Indians"? Do you call your children by saying, "Come on, guys," even if you are talking about both guys and girls?

Try to use gender-neutral language. Use plural pronouns such as "they" and "them," instead of masculine pronouns such as "he" and "him." Use words such as firefighter, flight attendant, garbage collector, and humankind to replace the use of "man" as a generic noun or ending.

When talking about people with disabilities, use the term "disability" and not "handicap." More importantly, concentrate on the person's abilities rather than her disability. Use "people first" language: Talk about the person first and the disability second. For example, use "woman who is blind," not "blind woman," and "man with a disability," not "disabled man." The disability is only one characteristic of the person.

Think about questionable words that are a part of your everyday vocabulary and ask yourself, "How can I change the way I speak so it includes everyone and hurts no one?"

Be Aware of Messages Your Child Receives from You

Examining your own cultural assumptions and biases is a good place to begin your anti-bias work. For example, do you respond differently with your child when a person of another race is coming toward you, such as clutching his hand tightly or locking your car doors? Do you show a genuine interest and openness to learning about and getting to know people who are different from yourself? Do you use stereotypical language about other groups or people? Do you tell ethnic or racial jokes? Do you show an interest in trying new foods or participating in events/programs from cultures that are new or unusual to you?

As you ask yourself these and other questions, remember that it's okay to have some discomfort. Everyone has a comfort zone from which it can be difficult to branch out. You have to be open to learning and growing just as your child is.