“Mommy, I wish I had brown skin,” said my 4-year-old son. In his world, dark skin is beautiful. This feeling results from the wonderful diversity in our family and friends. He has many relationships with people from a variety of cultures and knows this to be the norm. He values diversity because he has been exposed to it and also because it is celebrated within our family.
Diversity has become a popular buzzword across various media outlets, school districts and communities. What it really means is often misunderstood or glossed over by the celebration of a heritage month or “taco night” at school.
It is not enough to send your child to a diverse school or to just live in a diverse neighborhood. While these factors are important and support a multicultural view on relationships and society, children need more to help them appreciate and value people from all walks of life.
This point was made clear on a recent CNN special when a teacher who is also a mother learned of her young son’s feelings about different racial groups. She always thought of herself as open-minded and accepting of all people. When the correspondent interviewed her son asking various questions about race and skin color, the mother was shocked to hear her son say negative things about dark skin and associating dark skin with words like “bad.”
What steps can we parents take to help our children understand and appreciate the beautiful array of unique characteristics that each of us possesses? Here are some ideas to get started.
1) Acknowledge your fears and face them – Each of us holds biases and beliefs about the “other,” whether that is someone from a different racial or ethnic group, religion, disability/ability status, or someone whose language is different from ours. Many of these deeply entrenched beliefs are based on fear of the unknown, fear that has been taught to us from an early age. It’s important to acknowledge that these beliefs exist within us and then challenge ourselves to overcome them. It’s not enough to say, “Well, that’s how I was raised” or “I can’t help that I believe that.” Each of us must make conscious choices daily to see others in a new or different light.
2) Cultivate relationships – It is important for children to see the adults in their lives spending time with a variety of people. Your circle of friends demonstrates to children who you value and what types of relationships are important to you. Remember, children act based on what they see more than what they hear. It is not enough to just talk about equality or diversity. You must act with an authentic intention. If you don’t live in a diverse neighborhood, don’t stop there. Attend a community event or celebration and talk to your children about various cultures, customs and traditions. Reach out and reach across to build relationships.
3) Turn off your television – If we were to just turn off the television a few nights a week, we would greatly reduce the number of negative messages and images we take in through mainstream media. Comedy shows that make fun of Islam or music videos that degrade women are just a few examples of the negative messages playing over and over again. Like anything else, when you see and hear something numerous times from a young age, you will begin to believe it as truth.
4) Embrace lifelong learning – Our children are growing up in a global society – one that may be quite different than their parents’ world. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about individuals from different backgrounds and share in this journey with your children. They are naturally curious and may make observations about people’s skin, clothing, and language. Have a conversation just like you do with other topics. Responding with statements like, “We can’t talk about skin color” or “I don’t know why those people wear that” may turn children’s curiosity into negative stereotypes or beliefs. When children have questions that you don’t know the answers to, acknowledge them: “Wow, I’m really glad that you are wondering about that. I’m not sure, but let’s find out together.” Multicultural children’s books provide excellent tools to help create a dialogue. Speak up if you hear a racist or stereotyping joke. When your children see that you won’t tolerate injustice, it helps them to be an advocate, too.
We owe it to our children and to ourselves to provide them with daily experiences that enrich their lives and create a world view that is accepting and open.
Mona Ivey-Soto, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.S.Ed., received her Ph.D. in Early Intervention from the University of Oregon. She prides herself in being a passionate educator, advocate and therapist for young children and families. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site; visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram; or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.