No such thing as ‘normal’: How to encourage children to value diversity

September 17, 2018 Published by

Our world is becoming more diverse and accepting, which is a wonderful thing. However, we still have a way to go – how can we encourage children to value diversity as they grow up?

Why is representation important?

Have you ever heard of the phrase, “you can’t be what you can’t see”? 

Well, representation, whether it’s on tv, the internet or in education not only allows children to see people similar to themselves represented in a way that’s separate to their supposed ‘otherness’ but it also allows children to see characters that reflect the diverse world around them. 

It can also help remove the stigma of disability. Some might say that disabilities should be ignored in order to really be equal. But sometimes ignoring differences just means they become the unknown, which can lead to fear and prejudice.

Positive representation helps children learn that it’s okay to be different, whether it’s because of a person’s disability, or their gender, race, religion, and so on. This is important for discouraging harmful stereotypes and helping children learn to value themselves as unique individuals.

 

How can we talk about diversity with young children?

Younger children are normally very accepting of people’s differences and more often than not, they are simply curious. So do your best to answer your child’s questions and make it relatable to them.

For example, there might be a child in their class with Autism who doesn’t like loud noises. You could talk about things your child doesn’t like or is scared of.

Or if a Jewish child in their class wears a kippah, talk to your child about that child’s religion. You might explain that people follow different religions and show them pictures of the different Gods people believe in. Talk about any religious places you have visited too, such as churches and cathedrals.

If your child has any concerns, don’t be afraid to discuss those too – it is all part of their learning.

 

What else can we do? 

Watching TV programmes together is a good starting point for discussing diversity with young children. CBeebies is very good for this, or take a look at this list of programmes with diverse characters from Common Sense Media.

You can help your child experience diversity through play – a toy box with a variety of characters your child can play with is a good starting point.

  • Different characters can promote discussion about different disabilities and encourage children to think about the character’s personality and story as they play. They can also be used to introduce children to other cultures or to help them learn about their own identity. 
  • Unfortunately, there aren’t many toys just yet that represent the diverse society we live in [1], although campaigns such as Toy Like Me are fighting for more representative toys.

You can also make crafts and play games together to learn about people and communities. For example, you could try this coloured paper activity or this lamp craft, both of which can get children thinking about the beauty of diversity by demonstrating that we all come in different shapes, colours and sizes.

Give your child hands-on experience of other cultures – you could celebrate Chinese New Year or cook up some recipes from across the world.

Model respect for diversity – Children learn by copying, so their attitudes towards diversity will be influenced by everyone around them. 

  • We, as parents, are their biggest role models. So the first step towards encouraging your child to respect diversity is to consider how you treat others who are different. 
  • A good example is not shying away from inviting certain children over for a playdate or Birthday party. It will demonstrate to your child that it’s important to include everyone and will mean so much to the child themselves. Their mum or dad will welcome any questions you have in order to set your mind at rest.

“Prejudice is not inherited; it is learned, first from parents and then from an ever-widening circle of people and institutions ranging from relative to schools.” 

– How Prejudice is Learned

 

Get older children to choose kind – Secondary school is a time where everyone feels pressured to fit in more than ever – so children can become more self-conscious about anything that makes them stand out, and may bully others for their differences in order to be accepted by their own peer group.

  • Remember that even at this age you are an important role model for your child. So keep being the person you want your child to become and model positive attitudes wherever you can.

Use media – At secondary school age, children are cognitively able to think in a more abstract way and develop an understanding of hypothetical situations. So films, TV shows and books that challenge stereotypes and offer positive, accurate representation of differences are a great way to get your child thinking about diversity.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic book/film for teaching children about racial prejudice, or there’s the more recent Wonder which teaches viewers to appreciate people for who they are and not what they look like.
  • YouTube can also give children a great insight into the lives of a more diverse group of people, such as the Ted Talks ‘I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much’ or ‘I am not your Asian stereotype’.

 

 

Summary

We normally talk about teaching children important skills. But when it comes to respecting diversity, it’s something that actually comes naturally to children.

Encouraging children to value diversity seems to be more about what we need to avoid teaching them – the prejudice, the stereotypes and the misconceptions – than what we need to teach them.

In some cases, they could even teach us a lesson or two.


Sources

[1] Toys and diversity: A quantitative analysis of toy catalogues. Presented by Volker Mehringer at the International Toy Research Association conference 2018.

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This post was written by Claire Gillies

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