I didn’t know what to say the first time Callie asked me, “Mommy, how come I have one leg and you have two?”
Although I had definitely anticipated and prepared for the conversation, I temporarily froze in the moment. Talking to our children about differences feels scary. We want to choose the right words to convey that everybody is unique, and that’s great! It makes the world an interesting and exciting place. We also want to acknowledge the differences and challenges that are a part of some people’s living experiences too.
We want to raise inclusive, accepting children who celebrate diversity. We hope our kids will feel comfortable in their own skin while appreciating that not everyone moves, looks, talks, or thinks like them.
It turns out that these conversations don’t have to be as scary as we think. Children are naturally curious and open-minded. They don’t feel discomfort about differences, and you don’t need to have the perfect words. These ten simple strategies will help you raise children who are inclusive, accepting, and welcoming of others.
Examine Diversity Deficits
Check your own diversity “deficits”. Remember, kids watch and listen to everything you do. Examine your neighborhood, your community, your friendships and your interactions with others.
Then be honest with yourself. How often does your family interact with people who are not like you? That don’t look like you or move like you? For instance, do you have friends that are different races, abilities, and religions? Are you accepting of people?
Or do you make judgments and maintain stereotypes? (PS–I’m looking at people who do this with people that vote differently than you do) If you want your kids to be inclusive, you need to be that way too.
Exposure to diverse experiences and people normalizes differences for children. It increases understanding and removes the confusion, fear, or “otherness” that often leads to prejudice.
Facilitate the following experiences for your child:
- Visit museums and cultural institutions.
- Volunteer in your community
- Visit an accessible amusement park
- Give your children opportunities to be around people from diverse backgrounds.
- If possible, travel to new and different places.
When you’re at home, you can also engage in the following activities:
- Choose media that actively represents and celebrates diversity.
- Select dolls of varying body types, races, and ethnicities.
- Find a pen pal from another country.
- Read books that explore other cultures and ideas.
- Read stories about interesting people and role models from different and diverse backgrounds.
Encourage your children to value not only themselves as unique and worthwhile people but others as well. Remind them that a person’s appearance, idiosyncrasies, abilities, personality, quirks, beliefs, and interests bring something special to the world that nobody else can duplicate.
Reject “Cool” Crowd Ideas
Be sure your child realizes that the “in-crowd” does not always translate to the “best crowd” or the “most amazing” crowd. Instead, focus their attention on values including kindness, inclusion, respect, and empathy.
I think a big component of this idea is teaching your kids what constitutes a healthy friendship. I’m also a fan of not buying your child all the “trendy” electronics, gadgets, clothes, shoes and cars. These items are not a one way ticket into the “cool” club and guaranteed acceptance for your child. If you take your own child’s focus off of material items as a means to acceptance, then they will be less likely to judge others on their material possessions as well.
Make Room at the Table
Pull up a chair. Teach your child to make room at the table and to reach out to others. Urge them to make other kids in their class feel valued. Encourage them to call the new kid in class, get to know the classmate who often sits alone at lunch, or practice with the teammate who is on the sidelines.
Pro tip: One way to make sure this is happening is to challenge your child to find out one good thing about a child they regularly say is annoying, irritating or a “jerk”. Challenging them to do this will teach them that there is good in everyone and that everyone has something to offer the world.
Think Future State
Get your child to look to the future. Sometimes the values, abilities, and strengths that are admired in middle school are not the same attributes that are admired later in life. I know this can be challenging–as parents, we want to validate their current experience but also help them put the fleeting time frame that their school age years are in perspective at the same time.
For instance, the highly intelligent kid who is super awkward in middle school may go on to be not only a brilliant doctor someday but their best friend. The goal is that your child sees that even kids who are not “popular” are worth investing time in.
Cast a Wide Friendship Net
Research has shown that kids who have a diverse set of friendships, such as friends from school, church, sports, volunteering, summer camp, and so on, will not only be more accepting of others, but they also are less likely to be bullied. The reason is pretty simple. They have learned to get along with a diverse group of people.
As a result, you should encourage your child to cast a wide net and seek out friendships in their neighborhood, at school, on their sports team, through different clubs, and at church. Remember, you play an important role in making sure your child finds lots of meaningful friendships.
Encourage them to develop healthy friendships with many different peers and in all types of friendship groups.
Create Distance With Respect
Sometimes kids are just mean and it is not healthy for your child to maintain the friendship. Hello, Middle School. But obviously, we don’t want to reciprocate bad behavior with more bad behavior. Instead, encourage your child to avoid using nasty words, fake apologies or justifying cruel jokes by adding “just kidding” to the end of the sentence. They should opt for being respectful while creating a polite distance from the friend. And if appropriate, have them communicate why they are distancing themselves. In some cases, honest communication can motivate a young person to change.
Learn to Be an Advocate
Peer pressure is a powerful thing. But so is standing up for other kids. Research shows that when one person takes a stand against bullying, it stops. When your child sees another child being excluded, encourage them to take a stand (even if it’s hard, scary, and uncomfortable).
They can do this in several ways. They can speak up and say that excluding someone is not nice. Or, they can take steps to befriend the excluded child. They can offer to sit with the student at lunch, walk with them in the halls and talk to them between classes.
Prepare Yourself for Different Scenarios
Your child refers to differences as “weird”…
Sometimes, your child’s question might be about something they perceive as “weird.” For example, your child might say, “Why do some people talk weirdly?”
Explain, “Well, they might be from somewhere else and have an accent. Or they could be speaking in a different language. That doesn’t make them weird, just different. Or you might have just misheard them.” Emphasize to your child that there is no “normal” and “weird” or “us” and “them.”
Your child uses inappropriate terms when discussing differences…
If your child uses inappropriate terms or language that is not socially acceptable in asking these questions, gently correct them and provide a better alternative.
Avoid judgement, shame, or reprimands. Your child wants to learn and is simply being inquisitive, not coming from a place of prejudice or cruelty. Curiosity can be a great teaching tool.
Keep Tabs on Online Activity
Social media is an online jungle. If your older child is engaging with kids online who are excluding others, be sure you say something about it. Even if your child never does anything to personally ostracize others, remind them that liking, sharing, or even referencing a mean post is just as hurtful as the original post.
Ideally, your child should stop following the mean kids altogether. But many kids have a fear of missing out and this can be difficult for them. Cutting these ties may take some time and an extra dose of courage, especially if they fear retaliation. In the meantime, avoid insisting that your child stop using technology or social media altogether.
Instead, teach them how to disengage from unhealthy online relationships. These lessons will serve them far better later in life than having no experience with social media at all.