So, it’s up to all of us to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ To speak out with all our hearts, and that starts at home, starts with asking questions about race when we’re taught about it. Together I know we can tackle racism. But first we have to talk about it.poet, writer, activist, and First-ever National Youth Poet Laureate
We invite you to take a trip down memory lane. Think back to your childhood, to a time when you were young and encountered people who looked different from you and your family. Maybe their skin was a different color. Maybe they dressed differently than you. Or maybe their bodies were shaped differently. How did the adults you were with address the questions you had about other people’s differences? Did they change the subject and ignore your question completely? Did they scoff and say, “We don’t talk about those things?” Or did they address your curiosity with empathy and understanding?
A person’s understanding of diversity begins to form at a very young age. By six months of age, babies start to notice physical differences between people, including skin and hair color. At age three, children begin to classify the people and things in their environment. This is natural as it helps children make sense of the world around them. By age five, children will mimic adults in their lives and their attitudes toward people who are different from them. Children will then carry these behaviors and beliefs and begin applying stereotypes to groups that are different from them. If not addressed, children may become set in their beliefs by age 12. However, these behaviors and beliefs can be unlearned through exposure and conversation.
Many adults are reluctant to discuss differences at all. In 2020, researchers from Auburn University, Northwestern University and Fordham University examined surveys from more than 2,000 adults and found that 65% of respondents reported “never” or “rarely” having conversations about race or racism with their parents. Unfortunately, when children are not a part of these conversations, they are left to draw their own conclusions about the differences they see, which are often odd and sometimes harmful. For instance, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” recalls an event in her son Jonathan’s life that occurred when he was just three years old. Jonathan, being the only non-white child in the class, was told by a classmate, “Your skin is brown because you drink chocolate milk.” This led to a conversation with his mother about varying levels of melanin and how he had the most melanin in his class.
To talk with children about diversity and equity, we must start by building empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand how another person may be feeling even if you yourself have not experienced a situation first-hand. There are multiple strategies adults can use to help build empathy in children and teens. One of the most powerful ways is to model empathy by empathizing with a child. This can be accomplished by responding to a child’s physical and emotional needs, honoring and respecting their individuality, and showing interest in their lives. Additionally, adults can give children an opportunity to practice empathy. Ask children questions that help them understand other perspectives such as “Why do you think this person is feeling this way?” or “How would you feel if this happened to you?” Books that teach empathy are also excellent resources for children and teens. The more practice and exposure they have, the more natural empathy becomes for children. Empathy lays the foundation for equity.
Another important aspect of talking to children about diversity and equity is to acknowledge and challenge your own biases. As mentioned earlier, children notice when the adults around them treat others differently and will begin to imitate the attitudes and behaviors of those adults. By addressing their own biases, adults become role models for children, showing how to treat people with empathy which can mitigate previously learned behavior.
Adults should be proactive when discussing diversity and equity with children; they do not need to wait until a child brings up the topic. Opportunities to discuss human diversity exist in our everyday lives, oftentimes through real-life experiences or portrayals in media. Expanding a child’s library to include books that promote diversity and inclusion provides an opening for adults to read and discuss a variety of diversity topics. When watching movies or television shows, examine how characters of diverse backgrounds are treated and use the opportunity to discuss stereotypes and the consequences of intolerance. By starting the discussion, adults teach children that diversity and differences are not taboo topics.
Creating a space where children feel comfortable asking questions about what they observe is also important when discussing diversity. Adults should respond to a child’s curiosity with age-appropriate language, being careful not to overwhelm them with too much information at once. Even subjects like slavery, the Holocaust, gender roles or how discrimination has played a role in American history can be discussed in an age-appropriate manner.
When discussing heavier topics, think about the level of information the child can handle, additional details can be added as they grow and mature. With very young children, lay the groundwork for these conversations by discussing the general idea of bullying and how sometimes people are mean to others just because they are different. In elementary school, adults can begin to shift the conversation to more specific topics like racism, sexism, ableism and others. These topics can also lead to an introduction to systemic issues by talking about laws that have been put into place to keep people who are different from accessing the same opportunities. Tweens and teens are often ready for more detailed conversations about historical injustices, white privilege and how to be an ally. As children never stop learning, it is important to keep these conversations going throughout childhood.
For more specific ideas on how to talk to children about diversity and equity, including tips for different age groups, check out the resources below. By teaching children about human differences, adults lay the foundation for a more empathetic generation. A future where diversity is celebrated is possible, but first we have to talk about it.