Thursday, June 12, 2008

A First Look at Diversity

Most parents have experienced the embarrassment of having his or her child point out someone of a different color, or perhaps a disabled person and ask "Why?" This curiosity is natural and is no different than any of the other questions heard daily--such as "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why do dogs bark?" As our communities become more diverse, parents can expect children's questions about racial, physical and cultural differences in others. Many parents prefer to think of young children as "color-blind", assuming they will not notice these differences. Others assume if children are never taught racist values they will become tolerant, non-prejudiced adults. On the contrary, studies have shown children do recognize racial and physical differences in others and do so at a surprisingly early age. By ignoring these observations as parents, we take an "ostrich's head in the sand" attitude and give the child the impression that race or physical differences are something bad which we don't talk about. There is also the wish that if one says nothing, then children won't ask. The only way to raise our children with a tolerant attitude is to guide their development from an early age by: * giving accurate knowledge and pride about your own race or culture * giving accurate knowledge and appreciation about other cultural / racial groups and disabled persons * having an understanding of how prejudice works and how it can be fought How can parents teach their children about diversity? Hundreds of wonderful children's books focusing on all types of diversity have been published in recent years. These richly illustrated books give a glimpse of life in other cultures or races or as a disabled person. Check your local library or children's bookstore for such books and encourage discussion after reading them aloud. Take advantage of community activities that present a different perspective such as an African-American dance group, a Latino art exhibit, or the Special Olympics. Point out some of the characteristics which make each group special. Finally, don't avoid the questions your young child asks--remember, it's the only way they learn. Here are examples of helpful and non-helpful ways to answer some common questions: · "Why does Mr. Choi talk funny?" Inappropriate--"He can't help how he talks--don't embarass him." (implies you agree his speech is incorrect and the child is wrong to notice this) Appropriate--"Mr. Choi doesn't speak funny, he speaks differently. He speaks Korean because his family speaks Korean, just like you speak English because your family speaks English. It is okay to ask questions about what he is saying, but to say he talks funny can hurt his feelings." · "Why is her skin so dark?" Inappropriate--"Her skin color doesn't matter--we are all the same inside." (denies the child's question) Appropriate--"Her skin is dark brown because her parents have dark brown skin." · "Why is he in a wheelchair?" Inappropriate--"It's not nice to ask." (scolding) Or "We'll talk about it another time." (sidestepping). Appropriate--"He is using a wheelchair because his legs are not strong enough to walk. He can move around with the wheelchair just like you can move around with your legs." Based on demographic projections, living and working with "different" persons will continue to become more common. Familiarity with diverse groups from an early age leads to the recognition that "nice" and "not-so-nice" people exist in all cultures and groups. You and your children's lives will be enriched and happier by the encouragement you give them in acknowledging and celebrating the differences in each of us.

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