23 Aug 2014
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Light and Dark

Talking about differences and teaching respect.

Light and Dark

My daughter is about to be five, so we spent a good part of the last year at home and at school making sure that she’ll be ready for kindergarten. She knows her ABCs and 123s pretty much by rote by now; she’s even pre-reading. Days of the week were big a few months ago, and by gosh, she’s got those nursery rhymes down pat.

Bigger concepts like comparing differences are also emphasized at this developmental stage. Things like bigger/smaller, first/last, taller/shorter. So should I have been surprised when my daughter asked me at Stop & Shop’s deli counter a few weeks ago: “Mama, which man is going to help us—the lighter one or the darker one?”

I’d like to say right off the bat: in our house, we have a very open, tolerant and accepting worldview, and that’s what we’re teaching our children. There is no prejudice we accept when it comes to race, religion, age, ability or sexual orientation. And we certainly don’t refer to people by the color of their skin.

But when it comes to the nuances of social intercourse—which in our household means treating everyone equally and respectfully—integrating those nuances with the kinds of things a very young child is developmentally encouraged to figure out can be trickier.

Let’s face it, Wilton doesn’t exactly resemble the United Nations’ General Assembly. When my son was my daughter’s age, we lived in a much more culturally diverse city, just outside Chicago. Anecdotally, I feel like there are more and more opportunities in Wilton for my kids to meet others who don’t look, speak, move or believe the same way they do. But when you’re trying to teach your kids that differences are the norm—and are good—and that not everyone is the same, sometimes you have to bend over backwards to make that happen.

I’m encouraged that the schools are partnering with us on that effort. My son is at Cider Mill, where they are planning World Language Week, to highlight the different cultures and languages of the Wilton community at large and specifically of Cider Mill students. Of the student body, 25 come from another country, including Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Poland, Bengal and Latvia.

The school is inviting members of the community into the school during the week of April 11 to share their cultures with the students. The students with an international background are featured throughout the week, giving announcements in their native language over the school’s public address system and pictured on a bulletin board.

Rosemary Dellinger, World Language teacher at Cider Mill, organizes the program, and says awareness of another is the first step toward understanding.

“They’re sitting next to a child in their own classroom who goes home to a different language, a different culture, a different food—it is a tremendous eye-opener," she says.

She adds it can have more impact than a traditional lesson.

“I just think that it makes them more tolerant to differences. And this is when we can reach these children. It’s not just putting a video in; it’s sitting next to a friend who is different, and having people come into their world, into their classroom, it’s much more effective than anything we could show them in a book or a video.”

Similarly, the Wilton Library has run occasional international classes for children along the same lines—community participation has been key. Residents from other backgrounds have come in and shared children’s stories, food, songs and crafts. My kids have taken part in classes with neighbors from Korea, France, Russia and India. It’s all part of the process of learning that what makes us different can be celebrated and shared.

Truth be told, my kids also get the lesson about how some people deal with differences in a less positive way: we’ve been on the receiving end of a prejudicial comment too. My son came home from school one day, retelling how one friend started a discussion with him, saying, “Well, all Jews do….”

That’s certainly another, more unfortunate way to for us to explore the lesson about social nuance and diversity, and what it feels like when someone is pegged just because of what sets them apart.

In the end, I guess it’s a process, one where I need to understand how the kids are learning and taking in the world, how their brains work and what kind of lessons we can stress to them. I can’t forget that there are the lessons they get when we’re not with them too—the positive ones, like what Cider Mill is doing, and the not so positive ones, where they learn about qualitative, derogatory stereotypes.

Because everything they need to know, they don’t necessarily learn in kindergarten.

Cider Mill is eager to have more members of the community participate in its World Language Week. If you are interested in sharing your cultural background, please contact Rosemary Dellinger at dellingerr@wilton.k12.ct.us.

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