Talk with your kids about diversity
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Talk with your kids about diversity

Not since the turn of the century has the United States experienced as much diversity as in the last two decades. While this diversity has given our country its vitality and cultural richness, it has also caused some serious problems including racism, prejudice, discrimination, and lack of respect for one another. Today we have an increasing number of crimes motivated by hatred or bias.

What if parents never said a word to children about differences? Children of all colors, religions, nationalities, and abilities wouldn't see the differences and would play together in harmony...right?

Probably not - after a certain age, young chidren do notice differences, especially if they have not been exposed to people who are unlike themselves. They may find these differences interesting, or they may find them threatening. And even if their parents do not discuss or react to these differences, children are bombarded by messages - some subtle, some not so subtle - from adults, peers, the media, and society in general. By the time they reach elementary school, they are aware of differences, and some have already developed prejudices against people who are different.

Never has there been a better time to introduce children to racial and cultural diversity. We are fortunate to live in a country where so many ethnicities are represented, giving families plenty of wonderful opportunities to learn and appreciate how different cultures live without having to leave home to do so.

Grade-school children are developmentally able to put cultural and racial differences into perspective. They can either learn to appreciate or devalue traits that make others different from themselves, including understanding and being accepting of others who have physical disabilities. Today, I’m going to share 10 ways in which you can teach your kids about cultural diversity and the value of differences.

Tip #1: Examine Your Own Cultural Beliefs

The best way to teach your child about cultural diversity is to let them see you as accepting and tolerant. Our children imitate us, so in order to teach our children about cultural diversity, we as parents need to figure out what our beliefs are about this topic.

Ask yourself: How open are you to people from other cultures or races?

The goal is to introduce our children to the different ways people live. We do not want to cloud their judgment and give them biases, so if you do admittedly have any prejudices, you will need to resolve (or reserve) those so that your child will be open to new experiences and new people.

Tip #2: Purchase a Globe or a World Map

A great place to start is by having a globe or a world map available in your home. We have a large and colorful map which is framed and hanging in our family room. When something globally newsworthy happens, the kids can go right to the map and physically see that area of the world. This allows them opportunities to ask questions, engage in discussion, and creates teachable moments for the whole family.

Tip #3: Sample Cuisine From Other Countries

My family lives near a major university, so we have been very fortunate to meet families from all over the world, including China, India, Germany, and Spain. One year, our community organized an “Intercontinental Cuisine” dinner where everyone signed on to bring dishes from their country. Over 100 people dined on sushi, curries, Wiener Schnitzel, paella, and more. There was music playing from these different cultures as well. Some of us even got an instant foreign language lesson from some of the language professors who attended.

Thankfully, you don’t have to have access to a university to accomplish this. Simply reach out to folks in your town, or maybe one of your child’s friends comes from a different country, and have a pot luck. This is a delicious way to introduce kids to new cultures.

Tip #4: Encourage Questions

If your child has questions about differences in physical characteristics or cultural practices, discuss them openly. This teaches your child that it’s okay to notice differences, and more importantly, it teaches him that it’s good to talk about them. Learning to appreciate all kinds of differences—not just racial and cultural but differences in socioeconomic levels, gender, and even disabilities is an important skill in today’s diverse society.

Tip #5: Recommended Books on Culture, Race, and Disability

David’s Drawings by Cathryn Falwell

Perfect for: Ages 7 – 10

What it’s about: One wintry morning, David, a shy African-American boy, spies a beautiful tree on his way to school. Before class begins, he gets a paper and pencil and draws its trunk and bare branches. Soon, his schoolmates look on and make suggestions. In this gentle and appealing story, a boy figures out how to stay true to his own artistic vision while allowing his friends to express their own creativity.

Black, White, Just Right! by Marguerite W. Davol

Perfect for: Ages 2-5

What it’s about: A mixed-race child celebrates the rich inclusiveness of her life in a joyful picture book. Mama's face is chestnut brown, Papa's face turns pink in the sun, the child's a little dark, a little light, and "Just right!"

Stinky the Bulldog by Jackie Valent

Perfect for: 3 and under

What it’s about: Stinky is a lovable little bulldog who moves to a new neighborhood. The mama bulldog teaches Stinky a valuable lesson in not judging others in this colorful picture book..

Special People, Special Ways by Arlene Maguire

Perfect for: Grade 2 and up

Special People, Special Ways presents a positive image of persons with disabilities. It shares the message that even though each of us may have something different about us, we share many commonalities. Coupled with colorful illustrations, the book conveys the message that although painful at times, being different can also be wonderful.

My Sister is Special by Larry Jansen

Perfect for: 3 and up

What it’s about: A little boy learns compassion and patience as he cares for his little sister, who has Down's Syndrome.

Tip #6: Use Various Cultures to Inspire Holiday Decorations

When you are decorating your home for the holidays, consider using various cultures as inspiration. For example, you could incorporate a piñata filled with Christmas candy in your celebration or let your kids paint chopsticks that you can use as colorful ornaments on your tree. Get your kids involved and see what ideas they can come up with. This also provides an opportunity to do some simple research on how other countries and cultures celebrate the holiday season.

Tip #7: Encourage Kids to Correspond with International Pen Pals

Find out about pen pals for your kids in other countries. Have kids pick a pen pal and start writing to or emailing them. Kids who build up relationships with people in other countries will end up being more globally aware. With the prevalence of email and social media these days, this is easier than ever. My kids’ school has had great success with this in years past using Kid World Citizen, a great resource to locate international pen pals.

Tip #8: Attend Cultural Events

Most communities have free and low-cost cultural events hosted at places of worship, community centers, schools, and other organizations. Explore the calendar of events in your area to find kid-friendly events including interfaith gatherings, cultural festivals, art exhibits from foreign countries, and other activities.

Tip #9: Watch Movies That Introduce New Places

Watching movies that introduce new places to your children is a great way to raise their global awareness. Movies like Jungle Book, Dumbo, Aladdin, and Around the World in 80 Days, are wonderful kid-friendly films that let them get a peek at other cultures.

Tip # 10: Take a Stand Against Cultural Insensitivity

If you want your children to grow up without prejudice and with cross-cultural understanding, you can't show tolerance for racism or cultural insensitivity yourself. If someone says a rude comment or inappropriate joke — speak up and let your child know that this isn’t acceptable. Kids need to understand that no matter where we are, people really are essentially the same. They have the same emotions, the same desires, and the same concerns. Teaching this to your kids now can keep them from fostering prejudice and help them grow into thoughtful, open-minded adults.

 What can you do?

There are simple ways parents can help their children understand differences in people and be tolerant of those differences.

1. Respectfully listen to and answer your child's questions about people's differences. If you ignore questions, change the subject, sidestep, or scold your child for asking, you may suggest that the subject is bad or inappropriate.

2. Teach you child ways to think objectively about bias and discrimination and to witness against these injustices. Set an example by your own actions.

3. Bring into your home toys, books, TV programs, and records that reflect diversity. Provide images of nontraditional gender roles, diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, and a range of family lifestyles.

4. Show that you value diversity through your friendships and business relationships. What you do is as important as what you say.

5. Make and enforce a firm rule that a person's ethnic background is never an acceptable reason for teasing or rejecting someone.

6. Provide opportunities for your children to interact with others who are racially or culturally different and with people who have disabilities. Look for opportunities in the neighborhood, school, afterschool and weekend programs, places of worship, camps, concerts, and other community events.

When decorating your home for the holidays, consider using various cultures as inspiration.

Teach your kids about cultural diversity and the value of differences. Bring various cultures into the lives of your children. By working to raise globally aware kids, we can make a positive difference in their future!


This section is an archive of a bi-weekly column featured at Menstuff. Dr. George Simons is Founder and Principal of George Simons International, a Santa Cruz, CA consulting and training organization which specializes in gender and cultural diversity. With over twenty years experience in cross-cultural communication and global management, he is an internationally known counselor and author. He has authored:  Working Together:  How to Become More Effective in a Multicultural Organization and with Deborah G. Weissman, Men & Women:  Partners at Work. (Crisp Foundation). The Questions of Diversity, a set of assessment tools (ODT Inc. and Pfeiffer, Inc.) Transcultural Leadership with Carmen Vazquez and Philip Harris (Gulf Publications). The Transcultural Communicator and The Gifts of Feedback with Castle Consultants (London, UK). Achieving and Managing Diversity, a video training series with Trimark Ltd (Canada). gsimons@diversophy.com and www.diversophy.com.

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There are no elements so diverse that they cannot be joined in the heart of a man. - Jean Giraudoux

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