Teaching kids to embrace diversity and be inclusive

“Children don’t come with instructions, but they do come with open minds,” writes Christopher Metzler, Ph.D., an authority on issues of diversity and inclusion. How can you encourage your kids to remain open-minded and to celebrate diversity?

Metzler suggests that once kids start to comment about differences they notice in others, that parents listen to the language they use. If your child uses hurtful words, discuss why they’re hurtful. Explain, according to their age, why stereotypes don’t tell the whole story and can be divisive.

Ages children notice differences

Ages 0-3

Toddlers, Metzler writes, begin to notice differences in race and skin color and start learning names for specific groups. They don’t, however, understand the meaning behind the labels.

Ages 4-6

Preschoolers start to identify their own racial or ethnic group and may put either a positive or negative value on their own or another group.

Ages 7-11

By this time, children generally have a firmer grasp of their own racial and ethnic identity. Given the opportunity, kids may explore what it means to be a member of a particular group.

External messages play an enormous role in how kids view others. Their impressions, explains Metzler, “are acquired by absorbing societal messages from the media, literature, toys and their surroundings, even in the absence of contact or parental instruction.”

Parents, check your diversity deficits

Because children watch and listen, Metzler suggests parent examine their own “diversity deficits.” Look around your neighborhood, your community and your interactions with others. How often does your family interact with people who are not like you?

Make cultural awareness and inclusion messaging organic

Growing up, my parents regularly exposed my siblings and me to artifacts, ideas and foods from other countries, the result of their travels all over the world. They were so excited to explore other cultures that by default, so was I. In our home “different” meant interesting — not scary.

Read more on teaching kids about tolerance and diversity >>

Encouraging my (now) teen daughter to honor “others,” to be open-minded about people who look, act or think differently than she does is central to our family beliefs. We embrace diversity across culture, race, ethnicity, religion, capability and sexual preference.

Although people often strive to be politically correct Metzler cautions that they should not teach kids to be “difference blind.” Instead, acknowledge the obvious when kids ask, then be sensitive to the messages you attach.

Move outside comfort zone

Metzler says as much as people throw the term diversity around, we still live in largely homogenous communities.

Here are a few ways to encourage cultural awareness and inclusion messaging in your family:

  1. Visit interactive, informative multi-cultural websites.
  2. Attend cultural events. Years back, I “dragged” my family to a Buddhist temple to admire a two ton jade Buddha. Then we visited the temple and enjoyed Vietnamese food.
  3. Find age-appropriate shows that encourage multi-culturalism and inclusion.
  4. Encourage kids to sample ethnic foods.
  5. Read. When my daughter was five I gave her a book called Children Just Like Me. It had striking, colorful pictures of people from all around the world, depicting their clothing, food, toys, etc.

Learn about exposing kids to their cultural roots >>

Metzler encourages parents not to just go through the motions. “It is not enough to simply visit cultural events, eat ethnic foods and thus learn about differences from a voyeuristic point of view, ” he says. “Instead, we must make a deliberate effort to get out of the familiar and show our children we mean it. Accepting differences should be how we live our lives.”

More about promoting cultural awareness

Teaching kids about diversity
Teaching kids to make a difference in the world
Raising courageous, compassionate kids


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