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Teaching Tolerance and Diversity-How to explain other cultures to kids

How to explain other cultures to kids

By Emily Rosenbaum |

During a recent stroll around our local children’s zoo, my four-year-old son came to a halt. He stared at the family in front of us. “Mommy : what’s that woman : what’s she wearing?” He stood stock still, brazenly pointing at a woman dressed in a full burka.

As you might imagine, I was mortified. I figured I had two choices. I could stop right there and answer his question, completely objectifying the woman, or I could try to pretend he was pointing at the emus, whisk him off to the next exhibit and put off explaining until I figured out how.

But how do you explain to kids about cultures that aren’t your own? It can be really uncomfortable, especially right in front of a member of the culture in question.

After the zoo incident (more soon on what I decided to do in the moment), I asked some experts for advice. Here are a few of their tips on how parents can help kids understand diversity:

  • Start with things, not people

    Rather than jumping right into skin color or religion, try introducing the concept of difference to very small children through objects. Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program, explains that it can be as simple as showing children a bunch of balloons and discussing how they are different colors, but they are all balloons. Even the supermarket can be a multicultural experience, Costello suggests. “Go up and down the aisles and find things that are very specifically from other cultures.” This prepares children to understand that “variety is the norm.”

  • Remember that recognizing difference does not equal discrimination

    Adults sometimes become so worried about discriminating that they try to pretend there are no differences between people. This is a well-meaning but misguided tactic, according to Geneva Gay, Professor of Education at the University of Washington-Seattle and author of the study “A Synthesis of Scholarship in Multicultural Education.” “There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with human differences,” Gay points out. “That’s just a fact of human life.”

  • Use language children can handle

    Teaching kids to understand and appreciate diversity is all in the presentation. Experts encourage age-appropriate openness. “Give them as much information as they can handle at that time,” advises Gay. My four-year-old didn’t need a history of Islam, but an older child can handle more complex lessons. When my six-year-old commented that there weren’t many children with dark skin in his class and I explained that the area where we live is fairly homogeneous, we were able to talk about the subtle segregation he sees every day. Big words for an uncomfortable reality, but he understood.

  • Bring other cultures into your children’s lives

    You can use books, toys, and electronic media to introduce different languages and cultures. If you are buying books for children, Gay suggests, “Why not deliberately choose ones that feature culturally diverse characters?”

  • Avoid censorship

    This is what I call the “Little House on the Prairie Dilemma.” You’re reading Little House to your kid when suddenly Ma Ingalls tells Laura she is as brown as a savage. Do you read that sentence or do you leave out Ma’s racist comment?

    Costello cautions against censorship. “Someday your child is going to know how to read on his or her own and is going to discover that mom or dad lied,” she says. Instead, she suggests finding a stopping point and discussing the passage with your child, using the moment to teach him or her about historical context.

  • Talk about diversity before the topic comes up

    Be proactive when discussing difference with children. “With children you have to do a lot of preparation before, during and after,” Sonia Nieto, author of Affirming Diversity, says. Since your child is likely to notice that the new neighbors have different skin color than he does, it’s best to talk to him about that difference right away, openly and matter-of-factly. If you wait until he brings it up, he’s likely to do so at a time that is uncomfortable for everyone.

  • Use the situations that arise

    Don’t shy away from answering your child honestly when she asks about a person’s accent or clothing. “Children are naturally curious about things that are different to them,” Gay explains. “That includes human beings.” That curiosity creates teachable moments. Of course, it can also create some embarrassing ones.

  • Be natural

    “Treat differences as natural,” Nieto advises. Rather than making a big production of talking about diversity, often it is best to teach about human differences the same way you taught your toddler his colors – as a wonderful facet of everyday life.

  • Be considerate of other people’s feelings

    Back to my experience at the zoo. I decided not to pretend my son was pointing at the emus and instead invited him to ask the woman why she was dressed in a burka.

    This was a good approach – but also a risky one. “I do think that most adults would prefer to be asked than to have someone just staring at them,” says Nieto. “But it doesn’t always work out. You have to use your judgment.” She adds that adults should demonstrate “respect and humility and broach the issue in a respectful way.”

  • Bring different cultures into your life

    “Become more of a multicultural person,” Nieto advises. “You need to enact it in some way” if you want your children to value diversity. “Take field trips with your kids to neighborhoods with different ethnic groups, go to cultural events, and choose media that reflects the diversity of the world.”

    “The world is the world,” Costello says. “We don’t do our kids any service by pretending it’s not.”

    That means that no matter how uncomfortable my son’s curiosity made me, I had no choice but to engage it on his level. Fortunately, the woman at the zoo was cool. She simply told him, “I dress like this because I am a Muslim.”

    Now that he understands burkas, we’re going to have to work on learning not to point.

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About Emily Rosenbaum


Emily Rosenbaum

Emily Rosenbaum is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her publications include Skirt!, Mamazina, and Bitch Magazine. She blogs about family, food, the environment and anything else that strikes her fancy at

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31 thoughts on “Teaching Tolerance and Diversity-How to explain other cultures to kids

  1. Karen Bayne says:

    When we moved here my kids spent some time asking “why? about all their friends with 2 moms. Each of them are such different ages so it was a good challenge for us to engage each of them at their own developmental level. In the end of it all it was kind of fun talking to them about their impressions and ideas. The many mommas of Northampton were very, very cool.

  2. De says:

    I often ask, “How would you feel if…?” when my children behave indiscreetly. They can relate to this question at a pretty young age. I have offered for them to ask the person their question, and they are usually too shy at that point. They themselves become embarrassed and they realize that what they’re doing is embarrassing. It buys me some time to come up with an answer in a more appropriate setting. My favorite suggestion on the list is #6 – dealing with a lot of issues before they come up. Being a parent who talks to your children is invaluable. At every single teacher’s conference I have had, the teacher has mentioned that my children come to class with a wealth of background knowledge. Finally, as much as the Wii has been a headache at our house, one positive thing I’ve noticed is that when my kids create Mii characters, they make them in all different colors and styles.

  3. susie says:

    As an educator I talk about this issue daily and all the suggestions you have put forth are extremely useful. As sensitive adults we tend to cringe at the comment from a young child that seems inappropriate. The reality is that they are merely “describing” what they see, not giving an opinion. It is important to remember that children are not born with a bias, we teach it to them.

  4. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    De, that’s fabulous! The wii as a tool for diversity training. They should use that in the marketing!
    Karen: and that’s why Northampton rocks the house!

  5. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Susie, exactly!! It is so hard for us with our baggage to accept that they are just learning about the world. They know when we cringe, but they don’t necessarily understand why.

  6. Amy Dixon Bader says:

    These are great pieces of advice. I struggle most with the historical issues. We try to explain that certain words are negative and aren’t used anymore. But our 7-yr-old often doesn’t understand why one group would hate another. I guess that means we are doing a good job, but it can be tough with an age that sees everything in black-and-white (not race, you know how I mean:) He tends to be pretty absolute so it is tough for him to wrap his head around the possibility that some people dislike others simply because of their religion or skin or status.

  7. Sam says:

    The Wii comment is spot on – especially for kids this age. The Wii (and other games/technology/entertainment) are pretty multi-cultural at this stage – albeit perhaps to a degree. I’d venture to guess that someone’s skin color is not going to be identified as particularly interesting to today’s well-educated 4 year olds. They have experienced 4 years of Dora speaking spanish, Caillou’s multi-cultural class, or the inescapable diversity of Wii Miis.

    For what it’s worth the burka in question is what was new to him – and he was probably identifying as unique clothing more than as a statement on religion or culture. I bet his interest could just have easily been directed to the Minnesotan wearing a full body snowsuit, or Miamian in only a speedo. Not to say it is not a good opportunity to teach diversity, vs. just saying it’s what the lady wanted to wear that day.

  8. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Amy, I completely understand. My eldest and I talked a lot about that two years ago, when I was explaining why Obama was history-making. But my four-year-old and I have not really talked at all about the fact of prejudice. I know that we need to; he needs to understand the attitudes that are out there.

    Sam, thanks for the comment. My kids don’t watch much TV, nor do they have a wii, but books expose them to different cultures. When they watch TV, we try to make sure their television shows have different race characters, especially now that we have moved to a small, monochromatic town. But, even when we lived in a city, there was a day when my eldest, then four, first noticed people having different skin colors. Interestingly, he never did notice that Sid the Science Kid is biracial. Must be the purple hair…
    You are absolutely right that the burka was what was new, and my own embarrassment was colored by MY awareness of a whole host of bigotries in the world. It was very important for us to talk about her clothing matter-of-factly, without my own historical awareness getting in the way.

  9. Lauren says:

    Emily– great article. Lots of useful suggestions that are just now becoming timely with my 2 1/2 yea-old daughter who has recently started asking “why” questions. And the presentation of the information is excellent in that it is an entertaining piece as well as educational.

  10. Babaloo says:

    Please also work with kids on disability and other differences, as this is something that young kids often do not understand.

  11. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Lauren, thanks so much!
    Babaloo, this is a very important point. It makes us all SO uncomfortable to talk about disability, doesn’t it? But kids who understand that disability is nothing to be afraid of grow up to be adults who treat others with dignity.

  12. Catherine Carlson McNiel says:

    Thanks for this great post, Emily. I teach a Diversity class for adults, and these tips will be helpful for them as well. I’ve loved raising my kids in multicultural areas, but it does lend itself to a lot of questions.

  13. Al says:

    The other take-away I see in this is that it’s okay for adults to let their children know that they [the adults] don’t have all the answers. Starting with “I don’t know” but not stopping there gives the adult and the child a chance to do some side by side learning and exploring. Perhaps this helps model future interactions with ‘difference/diversity’ … not knowing provides opportunities for engagement.

  14. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Al, well, then I’m in excellent shape, because my kids are quite certain I know none of the answers!

  15. stoich91 says:

    Very interesting…its too bad parents have to feel so uncomfortable explaining differences to their children. Maybe its because we fear the unknown and should learn more a out racial diversity as adults, too! :D Great article…good tips :)

  16. stoich91 says:


  17. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    I agree completely. We’re never too old to keep learning about one another.

  18. Krista says:

    Talking openly with the person is a great idea… the risk, of course, of offending is there… but I would think that most people, if approached politely and respectfully, would answer in kind. In fact, be thrilled to have the opportunity to teach.

  19. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Krista, it is a thin line, because of course it wasn’t her job to teach my kid about Islam. We were lucky she was so cool about it.

  20. Melissa Sher says:

    This is such a hard topic to tackle, especially in a short amount of space — and you’ve done it so well.

  21. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Thank you, Melissa. The experts I interviewed really opened my eyes to a lot of great ideas.

  22. Dana Udall Weiner says:

    I especially like the idea that talking about difference does not equal participating in discrimination. Sometimes we are so afraid to use language that can be considered prejudicial–like gay or black–that we use euphemisms that are useless and signal our own discomfort or guilt. Great tips!

  23. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Thank you, Dana. You are absolutely right that euphemisms only serve to signal to our kids that we are uncomfortable with the topic.

  24. Jill Jacobs Cohen says:

    Thanks for a great piece, Emily. As you point out, it is especially important for parents to be proactive in exposing their children to diversity, especially if they live in segregated settings. Even though children are gaining more and more exposure to diversity via television these days, it does not take the place of face-to-face interaction. And the unfortunate fact is that far too many of our children grow up without substantive exposure to differences, due to racially isolated neighborhoods and schools. Therefore, it is critical for parents to seek out books and other forms of media that represent diversity and can serve as discussion starters. I am currently compiling a list of such sources for use in a parenting workshop. If anyone has any good suggestions of books, films, or other forms of media that parents can use to prompt discussions of human differences — racial, religious, physical ability, or other forms of difference — please share.

  25. Melissa Taylor says:

    great article, Emily – I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot with my own family. It’s essential to talk about differences because kids see the obvious; not talking about the obvious makes it seem taboo and could lead to exclusion or discrimination.

  26. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    Jill, it is hard to find good books for kids once they graduate out of picture books. There aren’t a lot of early reader series books that really have multi-racial characters. The Miss Daisy is Crazy series seems to, but we haven’t read it yet, so I’ll let you know. I just got my middle child a book of hip hop poetry and a book of Native American tales. But he’s into picture books, which I found were easier to find a variety of races in (my favorites are The Snowy Day and Please, Baby, Please). As they get into later elementary, there are a lot of books. But for the first-third graders? The selection is paltry.

    Melissa, thanks so much! I think you nailed it: not talking about it creates an atmosphere of exclusion.

  27. EdGirl says:

    Thank you for citing Drs. Gay and Nieto. They’re both very respected scholars in the educational research community, particularly in the area of multicultural education, and they have lots of wisdom to share. Nice article.

  28. Emily Rosenbaum says:

    EdGirl, they are amazing. I was honored to interview them.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I recommend PJ Library for books about the Jewish faith. We get a book, CD or DVD every month. No fee but we give a donation.

  30. maryam says:

    I found your article while looking up article’s on teaching kids about tolerance. Found yours particularly interesting, filled with practical info and easy to read.

    Thanks! Am sharing it on my parenting page for my country right now. :)

  31. Taci says:

    As a preschool teacher, I’ve learned that around the age of 3, kids tend to become more observant about skin color. One day, relatively early on in my career as a teacher, I heard one of the kids in my class talking about how she was black and the other girl was white and that they were too different from each other to be friends. I learned to step in and show that everyone’s skin color is different and that its what makes you the same that matters. “My skin is darker than hers and lighter than yours. And your skin is dark brown. And jose’s skin is a lighter shade of brown. No two people are the exact same color in this classroom. And even though you and Julie have different skin colors, you both like playing in the house center, and you both love to draw me pretty pictures. Just because your skin color is different doesn’t mean you cant be friends.”

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