Helping Children Appreciate Diversity

In their first three years, children develop their abilities to think and speak, learn and reason, and lay the foundation for their values and social behaviour as adults. Preschool children are naturally curious about the world, and they have questions about specific things that they notice. Questions about physical, gender, ethnic, or racial differences may be difficult for some adults to answer. But the way we answer will influence the child who is concluding that something is "wrong" with a person who is different. Elizabeth Cary, author of Talking About Differences Children Notice, gives some guidelines for responding to awkward questions. Children are more comfortable with differences when they understand why people are different.

Respond Promptly

If possible, answer questions as soon as children ask them. If you ignore questions, children may decide that there is something wrong about the question or the person the question concerns. Children learn not to ask questions that make people uncomfortable. The last thing we want to do is to teach children not to ask questions. Prejudice often begins when children develop misconceptions based on their limited experiences.

Give Simple Answers

Answers should be simple and relate to a child's experience and level of development. If a child asks, "Why is that man so dark?," you can say simply, "He is dark because his mother and/or father is dark. You have blond hair just like your mother."

Model Respectful Behaviour Verbally and Non-Verbally
Many people were taught as children not to stare. They were taught so well that they avoid looking at all who dress differently or who have disabilities. Toddlers are sensitive to the feelings of the adults around them, and they begin to mimic adult behavior.

Acknowledge Children's Fears

Some children are afraid of the unknown. They may have wrong ideas about people who are different. They may be suspicious of unusual people and resist the new and different. Fears should be accepted, and children should be offered help to deal with their fears. Helpful responses acknowledge the child's feelings. When discussing diversity, we can stress human similarities first, then help children appreciate people's differences. You might say, "You're scared of the woman in the long clothing." Then give the child the tools and experiences to help her deal with her fear.

Introduce Differences Through Books and Other Props
It can be less threatening for some children to meet people who are different first in a book. Issues surrounding differences can be discussed in terms of the characters in the book. Then you can broaden the discussion to include children in the group or people in the community. Select pictures, toys and games showing people of different races, all ages, both genders and differing abilities as capable and involved in all types of activities.

Remember, though, that actions speak louder than words. Model, through your words and deeds, interest in a variety of people and differing beliefs, behaviours and customs. We must be especially careful about how our actions shape the values that children learn as they encounter the people in their world. If we don't act, they will learn by default the messages that are all too prevalent in the world. And we'll find ourselves perpetuating ideas that we really do not want to pass on to our children.

Adults can help children make choices and act in ways that reject bias by instilling in them that
"If someone calls you a name that hurts your feelings, you can tell them they're wrong and they shouldn't do that. You can ask the teacher for her help if anyone does that to you, or if you see someone doing that to somebody else."

These example suggest ways to support anti-bias learning in young children. As with all other learning, repetition is important. Children will need many opportunities, over and over again, to explore similarities and differences, to try out new experiences from different traditions, to meet and get to know people from different backgrounds, and to ask questions -- even embarrassing ones that we might not have easy answers for!

Source: Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC. Brink, M. (1994). Helping children deal with differences. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.), *Child care center connections*, 4(3), pp. 1-3. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.
Source: Canadian Child Care Federation Resource Sheet #35, Helping Children Respect and Appreciate Diversity. Reference: Derman-Sparks, Louise et al (1989). Anti©Bias Curriculum Goals. Washington, D.C.: NAEYC. Available from Louise Derman-Sparks, Pacific Oaks College, Pasadena, California.)

Teaching Environment

Begin by acquiring as much knowledge as possible about different cultures, ethnic groups and lifestyles. The children's families are wonderful resources for this kind of information. Provide children with access to a wide array of multicultural materials on a regular basis. Your teaching environment should include:
Paints and crayons in a range of skin tones
Books that show diverse cultures and counteract gender stereotypes
Photographs of people from various ethnic groups
Positive images and opportunities for positive contacts with people with disabilities
Toys such as dolls of varying colours, sizes, gender, even those with disabilities, and dress up clothes for all genders and costumes from various cultures if accessible.

Look over your environment and materials with a "multicultural eye," remembering that the primary purpose is to generate positive feelings. Although inclusion of materials and activities is important, what really matters is the respect that teachers model when dealing with other adults and children.
After all, children learn by our example, and if we show understanding, appreciation, respect and acceptance for different cultures and life experiences, the children in our care will, too.

Scheduled Activities

Scheduled activities will help in your quest to teach children respect for others. The challenge is to teach children that:
Everyone has the unique gift of individuality to share with others
No matter how unique or different a person is, we each share basic human needs
Being different, whether in sex, race, culture or abilities, does not mean inferior
Every individual is a part of a cultural group with uniqueness and gifts to share with others.