My child and I recently walked by a black woman dressed, head to toe, in purple. Several layers of purple actually, including a purple Red Sox hat. She stood out.
My 2-year-old says the word “purple” a moment later and I agree with his observation. “She was wearing a lot of purple,” I say. And then I wait to see if there are any other questions or observations, but none followed.
We keep walking and I’m thinking about how in the future the conversation will likely go past just the word “purple” and lead into questions around other differences he observed. Discussing racial differences, I’m sure, will be one of the topics in my not-too-distant future. And I know I will be much more comfortable addressing my child’s questions about the color of someone’s attire than answering his questions about the color of someone’s skin.
Opportunities for teachable moments like these have been coming more frequently of late as my child approaches his third birthday, the end of his toddler days, and begins to sort everyone and everything into neat little boxes. However, as a transgender father, I know well that our world cannot always be neatly sorted into categories. We humans, though common in many ways, are diverse, complex and challenging.
Scientific research tells us that by the time my child is 5 he will have formed his own opinions about the differences he sees in the world. As a stay-at-home dad, I know I will have a significant influence on what those opinions are, but I also know that once he starts pre-school in the fall his teachers, classmates and everyone else he meets throughout the day when I’m not around will leave an impression.
We never know what kind of impact even a seemingly insignificant moment in a child’s life can have on his or her world view. A throwaway comment about a person’s appearance or locking the car doors as you’re driving through a community of color could possibly leave an unintended mark on a child’s beliefs.
So what should we do if we want our children to be prepared to engage with peers and adults who are different in some way? How do we react to their questions? These are questions socially conscious parents ask ourselves.
Ideas to help expose children to a diverse world
- Audit your child’s bookshelf: Are all or most of the human characters male and white? Do you have stories about historical figures who are people of color, nationalities or religions? Are females in these books portrayed as capable or only as helpless? Do you have stories with different family structures (e.g., two dads, grandma and mom, foster or adoption)? Are any of the characters differently abled? Do you have stories with characters in nontraditional gender roles, such as a mom who goes to work while the dad stays home?
- Avoid stereotypes: While it’s great to expose children to your own and other cultures through books, food, language and songs, be careful you’re not reinforcing stereotypes, such as appropriating another culture when dressing for Halloween). These negative images and caricatures are prevalent, so be vigilant to help your children develop an appreciation for different cultures rather than relying on outdated representations.
- Teach beyond borders: Hang a world map in your child’s play space and use it to highlight the places where their favorite foods come from (chocolate originated in Mexico, maple syrup from Canada), where your family and friends are from, even where Disney characters are from (Miguel in Coco is from Mexico, Moana is from the Polynesian Islands, Princess Merida in Brave is from Scotland).
- Google it: Encourage your child to research their questions and then discuss their findings. This indulges their curiosity without objectifying someone they encounter who is different in some noticeable way. It also takes the pressure off you always knowing the answer.
- Take advantage of teachable moments: Children always seem to ask difficult questions at inappropriate times. Be aware of how you respond. Refrain from laughing or getting mad. Avoid using qualifiers when discussing someone’s appearance (“Yes, honey, that afro does look goodon her.”). Hushing children and getting embarrassed at their questions can lead to implicit bias as the child internalizes the message that difference is bad and not something to be discussed.
- Who’s in your child’s life?: From babysitters to play dates to birthday party invites, a plethora of ways exist for parents to ensure their child spends time with people of different genders, family structures and cultural backgrounds. These relationships will help children have a broader world view.
- Be a role model: Recognize the work to uncover your own hidden biases is an ongoing effort. Strive to always be learning and growing outside your comfort zone. Diversify your social circle so it includes people from different races, religions, cultures and socio-economic statuses. Befriend families you meet who are different in some noticeable way (e.g., same-sex couples, biracial families). Surround yourself with other people who are also striving to raise children ready for our diverse world.
None of these steps are to-do items you can check off once and be done with them. To prepare your child to live in an increasingly diverse world is a practice as much as it is a philosophy.