When you look at a picture of your child with their friends, what do you see? A rainbow of skin colors? Someone in a wheelchair or with facial characteristics indicative of Down Syndrome? Do your child’s playmates resemble them in nearly every way?
As part of teaching my child to become an includer, I try to encourage friendships with those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious faiths and disability status. While my girls are too young to understand much about sexual or gender orientation, I refuse to enforce stereotypes when it comes to which toys and clothes are for boys and which are for girls. I do this because I want to instill the value of diversity in my daughters and encourage them to love and accept everyone equally.
What Is an Includer?
Simply put, an includer is someone who opens their friendship circle to anyone. It’s somebody who doesn’t see along color lines, or if they do, it doesn’t taint their perception of that person as a unique, worthy individual. It’s someone who invites the awkward child standing alone in the corner to play.
An includer is someone who exhibits sensitivity toward those who wear different head coverings for religious reasons. They understand that their Hindu friend doesn’t want a cheeseburger and make an effort to serve something different at parties. If they see a little boy playing with dolls, they get in on the game instead of picking on him for acting girly.
Inclusion helps children develop important skills for later in life. For example, when they work in groups in school, they accept other points of view and delegate tasks more fairly.
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Why We Need More Includers
We live in an increasingly conflicted, violent world. Recent research revealed a 9% increase in hate crimes across 30 major U.S. cities in 2018. As of Sept. 1 of this year, there have been 283 mass shootings. People today feel so much hate and it erupts in violence —often against others who have done no wrong.
Adult diversity programs often fail because people have already established their attitudes toward others. A one-hour training session cannot undo a lifetime of stereotypes. Also, those who do not already embrace diversity often rebel, asserting their autonomy by refusing to heed what they learn.
That’s why starting early proves critical. I began sharing diversity and inclusion with my daughters even before their births. I read to my children in utero, and I made sure to select books featuring protagonists of all backgrounds and abilities.
How I Teach My Child to Be an Includer
I don’t only use teachable moments to instill includer traits in my kiddos. Now that my oldest, babycakes, is of an age to understand, I actively seek ways to expose her to those of different backgrounds.
For example, I take my girls to a handicapped-friendly playground regularly. Babycakes now can understand when her autistic friend has to sit in a designated quiet space for a while because he feels overwhelmed.
We don’t follow a particular faith, but I strive to answer babycakes’ questions honestly and direct her behavior when she inquires about others. For example, when she asked why her friend’s mom wore a scarf on her head even though it was hot, I explained that wearing a hijab represents a sign of respect.
I try not to make fast food a habit, but on rare treat days, I let my kiddos select the toy that comes with their meal without indicating if it’s traditionally male or female. If a cashier asks me if I want a male or female toy, I say I allow my daughter to make up her mind without regard to traditional stereotypes.
I continue to read to my girls every day, even though the younger, squish, is too little to understand. I seek books that feature protagonists of diverse backgrounds. Babycakes’ current favorite is “Bunnybear,” a book about a boy who feels like a bunny even though he was born a bear. I hope this will serve as a good starting point for a discussion of transgenderism when the time comes.
Rewarding Inclusive Behavior
I don’t want to beat diversity into my children’s heads. I would hate for them to respond to something so positive with youthful rebelliousness. So I reward babycakes when she exhibits behaviors that show her developing value system.
For example, on a recent playground visit, she noticed a boy playing alone in the sandbox instead of climbing on the other equipment. A leg brace revealed the reason. Instead of going back to the jungle gym, she sat and made sandcastles with him. When I asked her why, she replied that she didn’t want him to feel lonely. I praised her for her empathy and let her pick out her favorite meal for dinner.
I keep my calm when she’s upset and teach her to identify her feelings, as well as how to recognize emotions in others. When reading picture books, I’ll point to a character and ask, “How do you think she is feeling?” I want her to recognize these traits so she develops empathy toward others.
Being an Includer Can Lead to a Kinder World
I don’t want my children to grow up in a world filled with hate, but rather one filled with love. However, I know that the changes I want to see begin in my home and my choices as a parent. That’s why I strive to make my daughter the best includer she can be.
Jennifer Landis is the founder of Mindfulness Mama, a blog where she talks all things #momlife, marriage, mindfulness, and everything in between. A thirty-something mom of two, Jennifer spends her limited free time practicing yoga and pilates, sipping tea, and reading with her littles. You can find more from Jennifer on Twitter, @JenniferELandis.
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