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How to Teach Young Children to Celebrate Cultural Diversity

A group of culturally diverse kids stacked on top of each other while cuddling in close and showing how happy they are.

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

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During this time of racial tension, it is more important than ever that we as parents take a hard look at how we are teaching our children to view and appreciate all of the different cultures, colors, religions, customs, and people in our world. Children are not born with bias or misconceptions about others. Children are born with nothing but curiosity about their world and acceptance of whatever they learn. Bias is something that is taught to young children by our actions, comments, and simply the way we live our lives. In most cases, it is taught unintentionally so it is really important that we are intentional about countering it.  This begins by taking a good look at ourselves and… Read More

During this time of racial tension, it is more important than ever that we as parents take a hard look at how we are teaching our children to view and appreciate all of the different cultures, colors, religions, customs, and people in our world.

Children are not born with bias or misconceptions about others. Children are born with nothing but curiosity about their world and acceptance of whatever they learn. Bias is something that is taught to young children by our actions, comments, and simply the way we live our lives. In most cases, it is taught unintentionally so it is really important that we are intentional about countering it.  This begins by taking a good look at ourselves and examining our own biases.

Everyone has it. No matter what race, religion, gender, or ethnicity we are, most experts would agree that everyone has some degree of bias. It may be implicit, but it is real. Almost every aspect of raising children is influenced by our own culture and belief system. This is unavoidable. Children are incredibly intuitive, and they pick up on even the most subtle of our opinions and actions. This is why teaching children to accept and celebrate all cultures has to be an intentional and deliberate act and I would argue that it is just as important as teaching children to walk, eat with utensils and count to ten. Actually, it is more important because this is part of a child’s moral fabric and it greatly affects how they view themselves, treat others, and live their life.

How can a parent teach their children about diversity?

We can actually capitalize on how children learn about their world to intentionally teach them about the beauty of cultural diversity. Children learn by taking in and processing information. Children take in information through experiences. By seeing, touching, listening, and experiencing new concepts, children learn new information and form opinions about their world.

It is natural for children to “categorize.”

Children then take this information and put it into categories. From as early as birth, children are experiencing and categorizing. They quickly learn that people are different from animals, food is different from toys, and that all items fit into some type of category. Children are also born with natural curiosity and wonder. It is important that we foster this and encourage it to promote new learning and reaching developmental milestones. It is equally important that we foster this curiosity and wonder to instill an appreciation of cultural diversity.

Children learn early on that circles, squares, and triangles fall into the category of shapes. And red, blue, and green fall into the category of colors. Similarly, children learn that people fall into their own categories. For instance, if a Caucasian child only ever sees black people as separate from themselves (such as from afar or on TV) they put them into a separate category. Then when they meet a black person, they unintentionally place them into that category that is different from themselves and this begins the divide. It is important to begin having discussions with children from a young age about this topic. Talk about how all people have similarities and differences on the inside and outside.

It is important to “see color.”

Julia Jordan Kamanda is a musician, teaching artist, and children’s book author of musical storybooks with degrees in anthropology and minority performance and politics. Kamanda says that many parents tell her “we don’t see color in our family.” Kamanda points out that, while this sentiment has good intentions, it’s not quite the right mindset. Instead, Kamanda suggests, it is really important to see color, recognize the differences, and celebrate the diversity.

Diversity means differences. As parents, we should allow children to be curious about differences and explore this as much as possible. Kamanda points out that some differences are on the inside and some differences are on the outside. This is a great way to talk to young children about the color of our skin and the differences in our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

We can also explain to young children that while they prefer vanilla ice cream, their friend might prefer the strawberry ice cream and that is perfectly fine. Ice cream preference is an inside difference that others might not know unless they ask. The color of someone’s skin is an outside difference that is obvious to everyone. It cannot be hidden, like ice cream preference or sexual orientation in many cases, but it is part of who the person is.

Kamanda goes on to say that while it is a good intention to “not see color” and teach children to not see color, the color of the skin is an outside difference that should not be ignored. If people do not see color, they do not recognize diversity and whole communities become invisible. She encourages families to discuss color and differences, seek it out, and celebrate it!

Introduce diversity into your child’s life.

Kamanda teaches children this concept in her musical storybooks where she explores the social-emotional lessons of diversity. Her books teach children that rhythm is our heartbeat. We are all connected in that we move through our own rhythms, and all of our lives together are like a melody with ups and downs and twists and turns and everyone moves to their own rhythm and melody. It is the differences in melodies that flow through everyone that makes life interesting. If every melody was the same, it would not be as beautiful. We need differences and diversity. Children grasp this concept so naturally and willingly.

Think about the people and situations your child interacts with every day. Is there diversity? If not, how can you introduce more diversity into your child’s life so they can become familiar with it, embrace it, and celebrate it and not fear it? Remember, we often fear what is unfamiliar.

Reconsider your child’s toys.

Think about the toys you buy your child. Does your Caucasian child have an African American doll? Does your African American child have a Caucasian doll? Try to expose children to role models from their own culture and other cultures. Invite other families over to share their traditions with your family and share your traditions with them, so you all learn together.

Read more books.

Model curiosity and learning for your children. Never, ever let biased remarks go without intervening. Read books to your child that celebrate cultural diversity. Here are some great ones to get you started:

Find new festivals.

Consider taking advantage of different cultural festivals in your area. Or take your child to go see African dance shows, Native American exhibits, and Latin American celebrations. Encourage your child to participate in the activities and eat the food. Celebrate each culture and the people there. Have discussions with young children about the differences in cultures, food, colors, and beliefs. Encourage questions, curiosity, and interest. Celebrate different cultural holidays and listen to different music. Learn about it all together.

Find diversity close to home.

Remember diversity can look different in different parts of the country. Some regions may have stronger Hispanic populations while others have Native American reservations nearby. Other areas may demonstrate diversity with Amish or people of the Hasidic Judiasm faith. If we step out of our home or neighborhood and look around, we will find people who dress differently, act differently, talk differently, and think differently than we do. Teaching our children to celebrate this is opening them up to the type of thinking that will make them sensitive global citizens.

Our world is very connected today. Our children will grow up to be a part of the global workforce, likely to interact with people from all over the world. Teaching them to celebrate diversity, collaborate with people from other backgrounds, and listen and accept differences will not only make them more empathetic, contributing members of society, but will set them up to be successful in their future academics and occupations.

Finally, remind children that people are a category, just as colors are a category. All colors fall into the “color” category just as all people fall into the “people” category. Children don’t limit themselves to using only one color in their box of crayons, just like people don’t limit their interactions to only one person. Without red and blue we would not have purple and without differences in people, we would not have beautiful diversity.

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