We honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today. But the movement of civil rights should be part of an ongoing conversation about diversity that continues with parents as educators.
“Parents teach children how to brush their teeth, to comb their hair, to be responsible and to be successful. We do so by introducing and reinforcing behavior that helps achieve these goals,” says Dr. Christopher Metzler, one of the world’s leading authorities on issues of diversity and inclusion, “We should do the same when it comes to appreciating diversity. It is only then that we can move from tolerance to acceptance.”
Children are not color blind nor are they oblivious to differences in race, religion, gender or ability. As early as the age of 2, children recognize differences in gender, race and even culture. By the age of 3 they are searching for ways to explain the differences and by the age of 5, children are seeking to categorize their awareness of difference in reference to their own identity.
Parents and caregivers are the lens through which diversity is interpreted for children and it is important for parents to take an active role in helping children discuss, understand and articulate the differences they see in a way that does not seek to stereotype, marginalize or judge others.
Being aware of difference is not necessarily negative. Encouraging children to embrace and appreciate diversity can develop a sense of human worth and dignity for all.
“By speaking openly about similarities and differences between people, we can raise children whose lives are not constricted by fear,” said Metzler, “By joining with them to recognize and talk about discrimination, we will help our children become adults who work to end it.”
Here are five do’s and don’ts to discussing diversity with your children:
- Do model diversity through your language and behavior. Parents and caregivers are the most important role models in a child’s developing years. Be aware the language and behaviors you exhibit towards people of other races, culture or ethnic backgrounds.
- Don’t stop children from noticing or talking about the differences they see. Dismissing a child’s observations sends the message that there is something wrong with it. When children bring home racial slurs, taunts or bigotry, do not condone it. Instead, address it as a form of discrimination and explain why it is unacceptable.
- Do talk about the civil rights movement in terms of justice and equality not just tolerance. The world tolerance can sometimes have a condescending tone of overlooking a deficiency which does lead to justice or equality because it interprets one being better than the other.
- Don’t mistake diversity for dividing, there is no “us” and “them” in the discussion. Discussing diversity is about valuing the differences at the same time recognizing the human dignity in all people. Find common ground andt foster a language of inclusivity that does define one group as having priority over another.
- Do discuss diversity more than once a year. Choose books, movies or toys that expose children to other cultures, races or ethnic backgrounds. Expose your children to multicultural art, music, food and festivals as a family.