Teaching children to respect differences
Image: Cade Martin, Dawn Arlotta, USCDCP

We are fortunate to live in a country and time period where so many ethnicities are represented. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Jim Crow laws were the norm throughout the country. Having a school that was in any way interracial was not only unheard of but unthinkable. Fast-forward 50 years and our schools are not only interracial but are a melting pot of races, religions, cultures, backgrounds, ideas, abilities and economic status. What if all these school children not only understood and respected each other but grew up to be adults who acted the same way? Now imagine what our world could like be if that were true.

As a parent, one of our main goals should be to teach our children that it’s okay to be different. Most children notice differences right away when they meet or see someone for the first time. In fact, they not only notice these differences but are sometimes very vocal or blunt about bringing them up to the point of their parents’ embarrassment. The majority of the time, of course, children are just acting out of surprise and curiosity. How we react and behave in these situations will go a long way in determining how that same child reacts in the future. According to Christopher Metzler, Ph.D., who is an authority on issues of diversity and inclusion, “We should not teach kids to be ‘difference blind.’ Instead, acknowledge the obvious when kids ask, then be sensitive to the messages you attach.”

When we let our children know that it’s okay to notice differences and to talk about them, this helps a child become more confident and learn to value these differences instead of being afraid of them. We can also lead the way for our children by taking a stand against cultural insensitivity. If we want our children to grow up with a multicultural understanding, we can’t show prejudice or insensitivity ourselves. If we hear or see an inappropriate joke about another race or culture, we can speak up and let our children know that this is not acceptable.

However, it’s not enough to just understand these differences. To really make a difference in our world, children—as well as adults—need to learn to not only respect differences but to also be inclusive to others. This is not always easy, of course. Many of us get stuck in our own comfort zone and forget that there is a whole world outside of our self-made bubbles. In order to be a good role model, we have to be willing to be open-minded and strive to embrace differences ourselves. In turn, children will learn to embrace them as well.

When my oldest daughter was in high school, one of her best friends was a girl named Ramya whose family had moved to the U.S. from India. She invited my daughter and our entire family to attend a special dance she was doing for her parents called a Bharathanatyam, which was followed by a traditional feast. I was blown away not only by the magical beauty of the dance and the gorgeous costumes but also by the entire cultural experience. For us on that day, it was like we were actually in India since there were very few who attended who were not of Indian descent. This made the fact of our invitation all the more treasured. Not only did we learn about a new culture and food that day, but we were able to appreciate the beauty in the differences.

Metzler continues on to say, “It is not enough to simply visit cultural events, eat ethnic foods and thus learn about differences from a voyeuristic point of view. 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. We can’t just talk about it, we must act also.”

There are many ways we can teach our children to respect differences in others. Below are just a few ideas:

-Visit interactive, informative multicultural websites such as http://frommanylands.com/ or http://kidsactivitiesblog.com/24727/multicultural-education-activities. Take a day to explore the web with your child. You might enjoy it as much as they will.

-Attend cultural events. Plays, dances, art exhibits, and other community events are a great way to expand cultural awareness and might even spark a desire to travel or to learn more.

-Find age-appropriate shows that encourage multiculturalism and inclusion. Movies such as “The Jungle Book,” “A Little Princess,” “Aladdin,” or even “Pocahontas” help to introduce different cultures in way children can enjoy. You can also look on the Internet for ideas or even take a trip to your local library to find documentaries.

-Encourage kids to sample ethnic foods. Look beyond tacos or spaghetti. Try setting aside one day a week where you can learn about a different country or culture and sample a traditional dish from that land. Even better, have your child help you pick the dish and help prepare it.

-Read. If you are not sure where to look for good multicultural books, websites such as Goodreads, or Scholastic have lists of popular and award-winning books that your kids are sure to enjoy.

It really doesn’t take much effort on our part to be tolerant of those that are different from us. Everyone has the same emotions, the same dreams, and the same desire in life; they just do it different ways. In realizing this, our children can to learn that no matter where we are in the world, people are more or less the same. If we can teach this to our children now, we may be able to keep them from developing prejudices and help them to grow to be open-minded adults who respect differences in others. What a beautiful world it could be.

Crystal Schwalger has loved writing ever since she could remember. Her love of learning led her to Dixie State University where she graduated with a degree in English and communications. She is passionate about writing and believes that you should never give up on your dreams. She is happiest when she is at home enjoying her backyard green spaces with her family. She currently lives in Washington, Utah, with her husband, her children, and her dog Kali.

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