More than ever, parents are trying to introduce their children to concepts like equality, diversity, and inclusion. Childhood is when we develop many of our biases and understandings of the world, so these concepts must get introduced while they’re young, rather than waiting until adolescence or adulthood to learn about these things. However, parents can struggle with understanding a way to express these complex, nuanced ideas in a child-friendly, age-appropriate way.
When trying to discuss major social problems with children, it’s important to follow several key guidelines:
- Be honest. Children can sense when an adult is dodging a topic or watering down the truth. Being open and honest about the topic lets children know that the topic is okay to ask questions about and discuss openly.
- Acknowledge differences. Many parents feel the appropriate way to respond to those who are different is to feign “colorblindness” or pointedly ignore the differences they see in others. While this may feel more comfortable for many than pointing out how others are different, this tactic fails both in educating children and accepting others. Children are great at noticing what makes others unique and encouraging them to pretend they don’t notice only reinforces the idea that diversity is shameful and should be ignored. This practice also doesn’t serve to help those with marginalized identities, for whom equality is best earned through the recognition and appreciation for their differences rather than through ignorance.
- Provide actionable steps. Hearing about suffering and discrimination can be difficult for anyone, and children are more empathetic than most. After having a difficult conversation, offer some actionable ways in which to combat oppression. That may include collecting money for a nonprofit, volunteering with a local organization, or reaching out to friends and loved ones.
- Keep the conversation going. A single conversation isn’t going to do the entire job of raising your child to value diversity and inclusion. Continue discussing these difficult topics as they come up, and include books on various diversity-related topics so that your child may continue to learn on their own.
Teaching Race & Ethnicity
Helping children understand issues of race and ethnicity can feel overwhelming and complicated. However, it’s often a lot more simple than one might think. It can start by simply helping children acknowledge the differences between different skin tones and cultures positively. This might look different for children of differing ages. For a young child or toddler, it may simply be the act of pointing out, “look, you have dark skin and your friend has light skin. You’re both so beautiful! Isn’t it fun that everyone looks special and different?” For older children, it might be “in our culture we make hamburgers and pizza, and in our friend’s culture, they make curry and rice. But it’s all so delicious! How wonderful that we get to share food from our cultures with one another.” Children also benefit from having a wide variety of books in their personal library that reflect diverse experiences, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds.
As children become older, larger questions about the history of racism and racial violence may come up. While these conversations can be challenging to have, they’re critical in helping children grow to understand the world fully. During these conversations, it’s important to find a balance between honesty and age appropriateness. Using simple, clear language helps children understand clearly, and using aides like books or movies can help clarify ideas.
- Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o (Age 3-8 Years)
- Look What Brown Can Do! by T Marie Harris (Age 8-12 Years)
- Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin (Age 4-7 Years)
- Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan (Age 3+ Years)
- A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara (Age 1-3 Years)
- Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour (Age 3-9 Years)
- The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Age 5-8 Years)
- We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (Age 3-7 Years)
- Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard (Age 3-6 Years)
For some parents, the subject of LGBTQ+ can seem like a taboo to discuss with children. The fact is that children implicitly understand subjects of love and self-identity. As with race, introducing recognition and inclusion can start with simple statements to show your acknowledgment and acceptance of others. For example, “Your friend has two mommies, and you have a mommy and a daddy, but both of you have families who love you! Isn’t it fun how everyone has a family that’s special and unique?” is an easy way of discussing this in a light-hearted way for younger children.
Discussing transgender people can happen in a similarly simple and accepting way. “People used to think that Auntie Jane was a boy, but then she grew up and realized that was wrong, so she changed her hair and clothes and body so she would feel better.” This is a simple, clear statement that children can understand. Including discussions on gender roles and how boys and girls alike can dress and play however they want can help children understand gender and identity more holistically.
- Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman (Age 1-3 Years)
- Mommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman (Age 1-3 Years)
- Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Age 2-6 Years)
- I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (Age 4-8 Years)
- Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders (Age 5-8 Years)
- Our Rainbow by Little Bee Books (Age 2-5 Years)
- My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis (Age 4-8 Years)
Teaching Disability & Accessibility
Disability may be one of the marginalized identities children are least exposed to in their early years because many schools separate disabled children from their non-disabled peers. This can lead to children regarding disability as foreign or even scary and can lead to uncertainty about what to do when meeting someone who is visibly disabled.
The first and best way to remedy this is to ensure that children aren’t fully separated from their disabled peers, whether through playgroups or inclusive educational programs. Understanding what disability is can be complicated, as there’s no single way others may be disabled. For example, a mobility disability that may require a cane, walker, or wheelchair can be simpler to understand for children than something they can’t see, like a learning disability. However, as with everything, having a simple, clear conversation about it with your children can make all the difference. For example, “Henry uses a wheelchair because it’s harder for him to walk. This way, he can play with us without having to use his legs.” This is a simple, clear way to communicate both a friend’s disability and the function of his mobility device without shaming or othering the disability.
Understanding appropriate etiquette is an important part of disability education, as well. Learning to respect accommodations, including mobility devices, service dogs, and interpreters, is critical for learning how to treat others with disabilities with kindness and grace. For example, should you be in public with your child and see a disabled person with a service dog, calmly explaining why they can’t pet the dog and encouraging them to give the dog space is an important lesson that can make a huge difference.
- Who Are You?: Ella The Enchanted Princess by Rosaria L. Calafati (Age 4-12 Years)
- Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboahb by Laurie Ann Thompson (Age 4-8 Years)
- The Friendship Puzzle: Helping Kids Learn About Accepting and Including Kids with Autism by Julie L. Coe (Age 5-7 Years)
- Howie Helps Himself by Joan Fassler (Age 4-9 Years)
- Don’t Call Me Special: A First Look at Disability by Pat Thomas (Age 4-7 Years)
- A Rainbow of Friends by P.K. Hallinan (Age 2-5 Years)
- Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco (Age 6-9 Years)
- The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen (Age 3-7 Years)
- My Friend Has Down Syndrome (Let’s Talk About It Series) by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos (Age 6-9 Years)
- Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis (Age 4-7 Years)
While these subjects can feel overwhelming, keep in mind that to your child, it can feel like just another conversation with you, the same way that they learn from you about grocery stores or the radio. When approached in a relaxed, engaging way, there’s no reason for any of these conversations to feel awkward or difficult. You can do it!