We are raising our children in a world of diversity and it is normal for them to be curious about differences. Little girls will be curious about how boys are different than girls and vice versa. Children who wear glasses in a family that wears glasses will notice that other families don’t wear glasses, just like children will notice variations in skin color and how hair can be curly or straight.
When children observe these things, they may ask questions, act out their curiosity by mimicking what they see or even play out their thoughts and feelings using dolls or action figures. This behavior is very typical at this age, and as adults and role models, it is our job to give them an emotionally safe place to express their curiosity, feelings and thoughts while helping them understand these differences in a simple way.
Over the years, many parents have asked me how they should talk to their children about individuals who are different from them. Here are a few helpful tips:
1. When you encounter people with differences in everyday life:
DO be a consistent, positive role model. Your child is watching and will learn from your example. Treat all people with respect, kindness and acceptance, and your child will do the same.
2. If your child asks, “Why is that boy wearing those on his eyes?” or “Why is that boy in that chair with wheels?”:
DO answer matter-of-factly, “Some people need to wear glasses to help their eyes see better” or “His body is not strong enough to walk like you do. That chair helps him get around.” It’s important to provide information that helps him understand.
DON’T scold your child for asking a question, because you don’t want him to feel ashamed of being inquisitive, which is a part of a child’s development. Reply by saying, “You are feeling curious about that! It’s okay to be curious and it’s always fine to ask. Next time, just whisper in my ear to make sure I hear you so I can answer your question.”
3. If you know in advance your child will be seeing people who have significant differences or disabilities:
DO be a model of acceptance. Allow your child to express his curiosity and address it as it arises.
DON’T try to prepare your child in advance. Making an issue of it ahead of time negates a child’s ability to accept and adapt naturally. Resist the urge to over-inform and only address your child’s questions as they arise.
DON’T worry about your child blurting out something embarrassing. It is perfectly normal for young children to speak out. Be prepared to answer simply as suggested above.
4. When selecting books, toys and children’s shows:
DO be sure to include children with differences (whether it’s hair or skin color, glasses, special needs, etc.) and be present to answer any questions your child may have. An few excellent books to start with are Don’t Call Me Special by Pat Thomas or It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr.
As caregivers, we can gently shape social behaviors by teaching children to be accepting and kind while exploring their curiosity. By ensuring your child has opportunities to be around others who are different from her on a regular basis, normality will be established and your child will begin to understand that people are people—regardless of these differences.
Check out more resources to help your child develop positive character traits.