Children are naturally curious. From asking “Why is the sky blue?” to “Why are some beans green?” Kids are going to ask about a lot of things. But when it comes to asking why a new friend or passerby is a different color, you may not feel you have all the answers. Teaching kids about race and diversity early on helps to break down misconceptions and build an attitude of tolerance and appreciation for cultural differences.
Most children start to notice that people are different skin colors and genders by age two. By three years old, they observe physical differences and disabilities. When children are five, they begin to identify with others of their race and gender, and may feel apprehensive about differences. They choose best friends, and they can exclude others as well as be excluded based on differences.
Keeping this information in mind can help you determine age-appropriate times to address racial, gender, and physical differences with your child. Research has shown that talking to your child about race with respect for observed differences, such as skin color and facial features, increases a child’s tolerance and acceptance of others different from themselves. Equally important, you can teach your child about all the similarities that we as people share, including common interests and emotions.
Because parents and caregivers influence children, it can be helpful to consider your own views on race as well as the views of your community. What are your feelings about people of different skin colors? What do your neighbors think? What are the views about race held by people living in other communities? Research has found that kids build their beliefs based on community norms and their own experience.
Many caregivers shy away from talking about these topics because they believe their child is too young to understand. You can teach kids about race and differences by taking the following steps:
- Talk to your child about differences, explaining that they are good and make life more interesting.
- Acknowledge that people are sometimes wrongly excluded because of their skin color.
- Highlight role models (past and present) who promote fairness for people of all races.
- Use books to illustrate your discussions, for example, The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss, where creatures called Sneetches learn to get along in spite of differences.
- Host or attend community events with a diverse group of people.
Encourage your child to ask questions and to share what he or she learns.
- The Atlantic, Research-Based Advice on Teaching Children Not to Be Racist.
- KidsHealth, Teaching Your Child Tolerance.
- The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Talking to Our Children About Racism & Diversity.
- PennState Extension, We Are Different, We Are the Same: Teaching Young Children About Diversity.
- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race.
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