A young preschool child who says something like, "I can't marry you because your skin is black (or white)" is probably not acting out of bias or following the lead of racist adults. He or she is more likely speaking from a perspective of trying to figure out how the world operates. It is similar to a child looking around and thinking that if you have long hair, you must be a girl, or if you play with trains, you must be a boy. A child may look around and not see diverse families and assume that is how it is, not out of bias, but as part of trying to figure out the "rules" of how their world works.
They may want to marry their dad or mom or brother or sister and may have only a hazy idea about gender. Completely separate from any recognition of skin tone differences, children may choose friends or "whom they can marry" on the basis of whom they sat next to at group that day, who shared their snack, or who made a tall block tower.
How to Help Children Understand a Diverse World
The friendships of preschool children change on a regular basis and are all a part of figuring out their world. We can use these experiences as opportunities for teaching diversity in the classroom, at home, or elsewhere. Here are some ways you can guide your children to better understand and live in a diverse world.
- Be a gentle guide. The best response as children make their way through the complicated social world is to always assume the role of a gentle and consistent guide, and avoid responses that heighten any tensions or confusions. Rather than show shock as children express socially awkward or inappropriate comments, we should help them to understand and have respect for others different than themselves. Conversation, role modeling, and sharing children’s books about diversity and compassion will accomplish this.
- Be a good role model. As children grow beyond the preschool years, they begin to more consistently reflect the views and behaviors of the people who mean the most to them. They typically look to family members, but also learn from teachers, coaches, and the views (explicit and implicit) that they are exposed to in the media. Stereotyping, jokes at the expense of others, subtle and not-so-subtle remarks of displeasure or disdain can shape children's views. The absence of positive expression or images matter as well.
- Provide an open environment. At home or at child care, our job is to provide children – even the very youngest children – with an environment as open and as free of bias as possible. When issues of bias come up, use those opportunities to talk about diversity and model attitudes of openness and inclusiveness. We can use literature and conversation to address how children feel when they are excluded for any reason and brainstorm ideas about how to keep everyone included. A child care program should show diversity in the classroom with books, posters, photos, dolls, puppets, crayons and paint colors, etc. that reflect the skin tones of the range of children who make up the larger world. Likewise, children should be exposed to music and images from all over the world.
Children have a lot to learn about the world and their place in it, about how to make friends and meet others. The learning goes on throughout our lifetime as we are finding our way in a complicated and richly diverse world. If children are going to grow up prepared to flourish in multicultural communities and a global society, they need our active and thoughtful engagement as guides to a world where prejudice and racism have no place.
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