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I didn’t know what to say the first time my child asked me, “Mommy, how come my skin is brown and yours is white?”
Although I had anticipated and prepared for the conversation, I temporarily froze in the moment. Talking to children about differences feels scary. We want to choose the right words to convey that everybody is unique, and that’s great! It makes the world an interesting and exciting place.
We want to raise inclusive, accepting children who celebrate diversity. We hope our children will feel comfortable in their own skin while appreciating that not everyone looks, talks, or thinks like them.
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It turns out that these conversations aren’t as scary as we think. Children are curious and open-minded. They don’t feel discomfort about differences, and you don’t need to have the perfect words.
These seven simple strategies will help you raise children who accept and celebrate themselves and others.
1. Model Inclusive Behavior
Children learn best from observing the role models around them. They’re always watching, listening, and learning. It’s not always easy, but it’s important to be the type of person you hope your child becomes.
Examine your personal beliefs and behaviors and ensure that you’re promoting the same values you’d like your child to have.
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.
Check out our Kindness & Community Kit too! It is a collection of engaging activities that promote kindness and empathy and enhance children's capacity to care about others.
2. Build Self-Esteem and Empathy
To raise children who celebrate differences, work on fostering their self-esteem and empathy. Children with high self-esteem are more likely to be accepting of others. Rather than following the crowd, they’ll stand up for what they believe is right.
Give your children opportunities to feel capable and competent. Show through both words and actions that they are loved and valued.
Does your child need a confidence boost? Check out the Self Esteem & Confidence Kit which includes helpful and encouraging printables and ideas such as goal-setting templates, mindfulness activities, and problem-solving activities.
Empathy is the ability to notice the feelings of others and imagine how it feels to be in their position or to see from their perspective. It’s a cognitive skill that can be taught and developed in children.
Play What’s the Emotion game (included in the Kindness & Community Kit) together. This game helps kids recognize and act out different emotions.
3. Be Prepared to Answer Questions
Children are naturally curious, and they want to learn about the world around them. It’s common for children to ask questions when they encounter someone different.
Still, discussing differences can be challenging. Try these steps:
- Talk about it openly. Don’t avoid the questions. Doing so indicates that it’s not okay to talk about diversity, which may suggest there is something uncomfortable or bad about being different.
- Ask them why they’d like to know or what made them think of the question.
- Provide an honest answer that is age appropriate.
- If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say so. You can say, “I need to think about your question and tell you the answer later.” Once you’ve gathered the information you need, go back to your child and say, “Let’s talk about it.”
4. Prepare for Various Scenarios
Your child refers to differences as “weird”...
Sometimes, your child’s question might be about something they perceive as “weird.” For example, your child might say, “Why do some people talk weird?”
Explain, “Well, they might be from somewhere else and have an accent. Or they could be speaking in a different language. That doesn’t make them weird, just different.” Emphasize to your child that there is no “normal” and “weird” or “us” and “them.”
Your child uses inappropriate terms when discussing differences...
If your child uses inappropriate terms or language that is not socially acceptable in asking these questions, gently correct them and provide a better alternative.
Avoid judgement or reprimands. Your child wants to learn and is simply being inquisitive, not coming from a place of prejudice or cruelty.
Your child asks about differences in public...
Sometimes, our children also ask about differences in public. This can be uncomfortable, but children often don’t understand social norms and are unaware they’re being impolite.
Apologize for your child if necessary. Then provide a simple and positive response like, “Yes, the world is a very big place and not everyone looks like you. Our differences make the world more interesting.”
When you’re back in the car or at home, provide more in-depth information if needed. You should also teach your child that asking questions about other people in public can be hurtful. Say, “If you have a question, you can ask Mom or Dad later and we’ll talk about it.”
5. Expose Children to Diverse Experiences and People
Exposure to diverse experiences and people normalizes differences for children. It increases understanding and removes the confusion, fear, or “otherness” that often leads to prejudice.
Through exposure and education, you can teach your children to celebrate the diversity that enriches our world.
Facilitate the following experiences for your child:
- Visit museums and cultural institutions.
- Attend cultural events in your area.
- Give your children opportunities to be around people from diverse backgrounds.
- If possible, travel to new and different places.
We often live in neighborhoods or belong to social circles of people who look like us, believe in similar things, have similar jobs and incomes, etc. It’s important to actively push past your comfort zone so children understand that there’s no “right way” or “normal way” to be.
When you’re at home, you can also engage in the following activities:
- Choose media that actively represents and celebrates diversity.
- Select dolls of varying races and ethnicities.
- Find a pen pal from another country.
- Buy a globe so you can talk to your child about the many different places in the world.
- Read books that explore other cultures and ideas.
- Read stories about interesting people and role models from different and diverse backgrounds. Make these stories part of your growth mindset journey.
- Introduce your child to Big Life Journal and the Big Life Kids Podcast which celebrate real-life people living big lives from a variety of backgrounds, countries, abilities, and more.
Keep in mind that over-talking about the subject of differences and diversity can cause children to tune you out. That’s why naturally introducing (and celebrating) that everyone is different is a great way to raise an inclusive and accepting child.
6. Emphasize Similarities
While teaching children about differences, it’s also important to emphasize similarities. Explain that although people are different, we all share the experience of being human.
We all want to connect with other people and be loved, we all have hopes and dreams, we all experience mistakes and triumphs, and we all feel the same emotions. As the researcher and storyteller Brené Brown says, “We are all made of strength and struggle.”
In addition, it’s not our backgrounds, appearances, or income that defines us. The way we treat others and the choices we make are far more important.
7. Read Books That Celebrate Differences
Sometimes, teaching children about differences is tricky. We aren’t always sure if we’re sending the right message or using the right words. Luckily, there are many children’s books written for this exact purpose. Here are just a few of them:
- People by Peter Spier: This children’s classic takes kids around the world, learning about the differences that make each country and culture unique and special.
- The Colors of Us by Karen Katz: On a walk with her mother, seven-year-old Lena observes that people come in many different shades, all of them beautiful.
- Same, Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw: Eliot and Kailash are pen pals. Although Eliot lives in America and Kailash lives in India, they learn that in many ways, their worlds are very similar.
- It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr: In bright colors and silly scenes, this book delivers a message of acceptance, understanding, and self-confidence. “It’s okay to need some help. It’s okay to be a different color. It’s okay to talk about your feelings.”
If you’re unsure how to start conversations about diversity or answer your child’s curious questions, these books are an excellent starting point.
Once you get the conversation started, you’ll find that children are very open to accepting and celebrating differences. All you have to do is plant the seed.