What would you do if your child taunted a peer of another race or ridiculed a foreign accent? Would you capture this teachable moment and intervene immediately, focusing on correcting your child in a non-punitive way or simply let it go? Would you prompt your child to imagine how they would feel if the other children excluded them from playing because of the way they looked?
Experts tell us it is never too early to teach our children to be more tolerant and accepting of others. Preschoolers are not colorblind and notice differences early yet they are not intrinsically prejudiced. Our challenge is to help our children stay that way by promoting respect for differences and an appreciation for diversity. Here are some ways to shape your child’s attitudes:
Examine Your Own Prejudices
It is critical to be mindful of the messages you send to your children. Children will pick up on the negative attitudes and demeaning cues of the adults in their lives.
Talk to Kids About Race
Notice discrepancies in what you say and what you do and make changes. Be prepared to walk the talk when you start dialogues about tolerance when (or before) the roots of attitudes take hold. Using repetition can help provide information that is accurate and developmentally appropriate. Practice strategies for talking to kids about race and racism.
Tolerant Parents, Tolerant Children
Attitudes in the home will have the most impact on the way children perceive differences. Encourage your child to ask questions, like why is Samantha in a wheelchair? Answer questions honestly and with language children can understand to alleviate their fears.
Show support for those who are victims of bias.
If we take the time to help kids feel good about themselves and their heritage it is more likely they will respond in kind. Teach children that pride in our own heritage does not mandate disrespect for others and that no group is entitled to special privileges.
Provide fun opportunities to experience diversity while exposing children to the joys of the multicultural world. Begin by bringing diversity into your family’s life by attending multicultural celebrations, or hosting a celebration you don’t traditionally celebrate. View television programs that don’t reflect bias, read books that are multicultural, eat foods from new cultures, encourage and support friendships with kids of all backgrounds. Try to choose toys that are multicultural as well.
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Stamp Out Stereotypes
In a perfect world our children would celebrate differences, embrace what makes each of us unique and recognize our similarities. But we seem to be hard-wired to mistrust those who are different, even in the sandbox, when we see the “us against them” attitude. Preschoolers sometimes insist boys are better than girls. Or that their African American classmates are dirty. Surprisingly a six-month-old can distinguish skin color, hair texture and facial features. By age three, children show preference for kids who look like them. By four or five, children assign social characteristics based on skin color. Many preschool children have already acquired stereotypes and negative attitudes towards those who are different from them. As a result, tolerance education needs to begin before our children start school and it begins with you.
When children are exposed to stereotypes and cultural misinformation in movies, television and other media, point them out. Challenge bias when it comes from friends and family members. Don’t let that teachable moment pass. When a child says or does something that reflects bias or stereotypes, call attention to it.
Children are not born prejudiced, prejudice is learned. According to a landmark study by Gordon Allport titled “The Nature of Prejudice,” “race differences at first arouse curiosity and interest nothing more.” Allport also says “the child who feels secure and loved, whatever he or she does and who is treated not with parental power and shame develops basic ideas of equality and trust.”
Similarly Sara Bullard, the author of Teaching Tolerance: Raising Open-Minded, Empathetic Children agrees, adding that “those children who are sure of their parents love, who have has consistent guidance in moral issues and have witnessed the principals of tolerance in action in their own home are likely to become open-minded, compassionate.” A safe, loving home with strong values can help grow a more sensitive, tolerant child. By providing a loving home where children are respected, valued and taught diversity promotes awareness, acceptance and alleviate fears of differences. Practice many ways to nurture tolerance.
Talk about Tolerance
Tolerance is an on-going process and cannot be captured in a single moment. Establish a high-comfort level for open dialogue about social issues. Let children know no subject is taboo.
Create opportunities for children to interact with people who are different from them. Visit playgrounds where people of varying races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds are present. Attend religious services at different houses of worship.
As loving parents, we want to give our children the best possible start. If we provide unconditional love and indoctrinate our children early on to love, respect and practice good will to all people, we will have done a good job preparing them for an increasingly diverse world.
Dawn Marie Barhyte is a widely published author with over a hundred articles to her credit. A former early childhood educator and co-director, Dawn continues to touch the lives of families through her writing. She lives and works in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY with her beloved husband and rescue chihuahua dachshund.
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