I admit it. I used to want my sons to not see the differences between us.
When my sons were young, I’d never call attention to a person’s differences. I felt like if I didn’t point them out, they wouldn’t see them. Instead, my sons would grow up to be “people” who just saw other “people.” And, they wouldn’t be quick to categorize them by what makes us different – be it their dress, their skin color, their eyeglasses, their religious practices, the foods they eat (or don’t eat), or their customs.
But, that’s not realistic, is it?
Kids see the differences among us even if we don’t point them out. Even from a young age, they’re likely to ask:
“Why is her shirt blue?”
“Why is she wearing glasses?”
“Why is his leg in a cast?”
"Why does he have curly hair?"
As many parents can attest, the list of these “why” questions can sometimes seem never ending. But, I’d bet that no one would think twice about answering any of the ones I mentioned. And, I’d venture to say that no one would think twice about proactively addressing these very topics head on without being asked to do so by an inquisitive child.
So, why does it seem like we need to keep silent about other differences among us when they pertain to race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation?
Could our silence stand to do more damage than good?
For me, as a parent, I could never imagine not explaining the differences between the colors of crayons in a box, how vegetables grow in a garden, or how numbers and letters are drawn. So, why was I so hesitant to talk about the differences among the people in our neighborhood, in our building, or at our local grocery store?
I can only say that I was scared. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of not being able to answer their more complex questions. Scared of making them only see the differences and not the similarities.
Now, looking back, I see that I was wrong. But, it took a somewhat recent experience at the playground to show me that, by staying silent, I could stand to do more harm than good.
Learning from an innocent question asked at a playground
Several months ago, my six-year-old son asked an Indian boy at a playground why he was wearing his pajamas. The boy paused for a moment and then just went on swinging from one monkey bar to the next.
Having overhead the exchange, I quickly pulled my son aside and told him that he wasn’t wearing his pajamas. Rather, he was wearing a kurta, and we should be respectful of his dress. And, even if he had been wearing pajamas, he should accept it as his choice – and continue to treat him the same as any other child at the playground.
I told my son that it’s okay to be curious, to ask questions, or to wonder why something is done. But, our questions always need to be asked in a polite, respectful manner.
My young son took in my words of advice and was off, happily playing again with the diverse group of children at the playground. But, I know he learned from his questioning of the other boy – and I did, too.
Seeking out opportunities to explain our differences
Now, wherever we go, I try to be even more conscious of the people around us. I try to look at them through the eyes of my sons, and then proactively try to help them understand and appreciate the differences between us.
Just a few weeks ago, my younger son and I wheeled our shopping cart over to the checkout lines at a local Target store. As we neared the register, I saw that our cashier was wearing a hijab, or a headscarf worn by Muslim women.
As we made our way to our car, I told my son that she had been wearing a hijab and explained what it is and why women wear it.
I never want my sons to not understand why someone covers their head with a hijab. Rather, I want them to know what it is and accept the person for who they are – regardless of what they’re wearing.
Accepting everyone and anyone
Racism can be defined as the “poor treatment of, or violence against, people because of their race” and also the “belief that some races of people are better than others.” To me, that speaks to the potential fear people may feel when they meet someone who is different. And, while we’ll always be different from one another, I have seen that we can ease and erase any fears of our diversity through education, awareness and dialogue - even starting at a young age.
Who knows – perhaps by making a more concentrated effort to point out and discuss our differences, children will be more apt to accept them and to see "people" as "people" with the same emotions, dreams and vulnerabilities.
And, maybe it will help make all of us feel more comfortable with, and more confident about, our own differences. Because, at the end of the day, the love and respect we have for ourselves and our place in the world just may prevent us from ever being afraid of anyone else’s place in it. And, then, we can truly celebrate the beauty of diversity.
How do you teach your children about our differences? Do you think it’s helpful to point them out to, and discuss them with, our children? How do you celebrate the diversity of people around the world? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Additional resources: You can find more resources about teaching your children about diversity on Multicultural Kid Blogs.
You also can have new Raising World Citizens blog posts delivered straight to your email inbox by entering your email address in the below box. (My list is completely spam free and you can opt out at any time).