By Janice Lovelace, Ph.D.
Parents ask me, “What can I do to help my children around the issue of diversity?” In the Seattle area, your child’s playmates and classmates are likely to be a diverse group – different races, languages, abilities and backgrounds. But if you never learned much about other groups while you were growing up, how do you help your children?
All of us are born free of biases, but we learn them as we grow. We watch how others are treated, what is said about other groups and what we see on TV or read in books. It doesn’t take long to learn stereotypes. By the age of 5, many children can identify differences and can parrot information that they have heard from adults and others in their environment.
Here are 10 ideas to help your children combat stereotypes and biases.
1. Be a role model for your children. Do you have diverse friends? You may work with a diverse population or see people at social events, but do your children see them as your friends? Invite them to your house and/or go to theirs. Your children will make friends with others who differ from them if they see that you do. Model for your children that everyone deserves respect. Address other groups by titles that they prefer. If you are unsure, ask. Never use terms that are derogatory, even when not around your children. Show your children that you judge others “by the content of their character,” not by the color of their skin, their gender, their economic status or their religion.
2. Encourage your child’s friendships with others across race, ethnicity, class, religion and ability. Invite other children from different backgrounds over to your house to spend time with your family. Take your children to diverse cultural events around town where they can see and interact with children who might not live in their neighborhood. Attend religious services in other neighborhoods or of different faiths. Invite another family to your religious service. Host an international student for a weekend or over a holiday (call the University of Washington or one of your local colleges for more information about this opportunity or contact World Heritage, 425-894-6016, www.world-heritage.org). The more personal experiences children have with other groups, the easier it is to dismiss stereotypes.
3. Teach your school-age children to speak up when they hear biased remarks, offensive ethnic jokes and racial or religious slurs. Teach them how to state quietly to the person who makes such a joke or comment, “It makes me feel (sad, angry, confused, etc.) when you say that about Maria.” Practice with them how to tell others their feelings.
4. Add to your home environment so it is reflective of other groups. Art, music, books, magazines, foods, toys, customs and religious holidays can all be springboards for learning about other people. Do your child’s toys reflect a variety of gender roles and cultures? Ask others to give your child books and toys reflecting diversity. Ethnic dolls are not just for children in the same ethnic group. Do you know about holidays other than the ones your family celebrates, such as Cinco de Mayo, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year or Ramadan?
5. Expose your children to books that represent different cultures, races, family styles and religions. Make sure that your reading material is diverse, whether your children are pre-readers or readers. When purchasing a gift for a birthday or other special event, think about a book about another culture. Encourage your school to have books reflecting diversity. Most textbooks do, but what about the other books in the classroom?
6. When you watch TV and see something that reinforces a stereotype, discuss it with your children. For example, you might say, “Not all young males of color are violent or in gangs” or “Look at how they portray that boy in the wheelchair. They seem to suggest he can’t think, instead of he can’t walk.”
7. Pick media, such as movies and video games, that show positive images about others. Talk to other parents about your desire for your child to view positive images. Offer to share your resources with them. You are modeling for your child that you don’t support moviemakers who portray negative images.
8. Work to make your child’s school environment reflective of the diversity in our region. Your school-age child spends nearly one-third of her waking hours in school. How diverse or respectful of diversity is this environment? How diverse is the student body? If your child is in private school, talk to the administration about their efforts to increase the diversity of the student body for your own child’s benefit. Ask how other cultures are represented. For example, in history lessons, how are Native Americans represented? Does “American” history start with Columbus while neglecting to discuss the cultures that were here before? Encourage your school to add language lessons in elementary school. If they don’t, look at other opportunities for your child to learn another language while he is young.
9. When you travel, seek out diverse experiences. Look for museums or events that teach about other groups. What is the Native American influence in the area? What other groups settled there? Many travel books highlight ethnic influences. Traveling is a great time to eat at a different restaurant or go to a different religious service.
10. Express pride in your own heritage. You can be proud without downgrading someone else’s heritage. Talk about your ancestors with your children. When did your family come to the United States? What are some special components of your family’s customs, rituals or history? Ask your extended family to share history with your children. Children who feel pride in themselves and a sense of knowledge about self are more welcoming of other cultures and people.
If you are active in designing an environment where your children learn positive images, they will grow up to be welcoming of diversity.