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?”
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.
“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.