How To Raise Inclusive Kids
Teaching children to be compassionate and embrace people’s differences can be tricky. Here are six tips to help you raise inclusive kids…
I grew up in a multicultural city where a myriad of races, cultures, languages and skin colors intermingled to create a rich tapestry of humanity. I don’t remember ever questioning why some people had dark skin or spoke with an accent because that was always my reality.
Fast-forward to 2020 and I’m raising my three daughters in a predominantly white environment. I must admit that it’s not my preference and it makes me worry that they will think white is the norm and other skin colors or cultures are unusual. But then I remind myself that as parents, we have the power to teach our children how to be kind, compassionate and inclusive.
We can raise inclusive children by:
- Having open discussions about differences and similarities
- Modeling inclusive behavior
- Exposing children to diversity
- Teaching children to be kind and empathetic
- Answering their questions honestly and openly
- Apologizing and redirecting if they make mistakes
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Talk about differences and similarities early and often
When my twins were 18 months old, one of them developed a fear of a novel that was on our bookshelf. She kept pointing to it and saying “Scary!” I was horrified because the cover featured a Black woman and I thought, “Can babies be racist?!” But my daughter finally managed to explain that the woman’s eyes were scaring her and I realized that the faded cover made it appear as though the woman’s eyes were entirely black when they were actually closed. I laughed at myself for being so paranoid and decided to use it as a teachable moment.
I explained to my twins and my three-year-old that the woman’s eyes were closed and her skin was black. I went on to say that there are as many skin colors as there are colors of the rainbow and that these different colors are what make the world beautiful – just like rainbows make the sky beautiful! My daughter was never scared of the book again and she even took to carrying it around the house with her for a few weeks.
While I’d had my doubts that my message would get through at such a young age, I was proven wrong. From that moment on, I seized every opportunity I had to talk about people’s differences, but also about their similarities. For example, “Some kids might have a different skin color, speak a different language or use a wheelchair, but they feel happy and sad just like we do. They love their families and playing at the park and eating ice cream just like we do. We’re really a lot more similar than we are different.”
Model inclusive behavior
The best way to teach our kids any value or behavior is to talk the talk and walk the walk. A good first step is to examine the language we use to see if it contains any judgments or stereotypes. Most of us grew up in a time when it was acceptable to use racial, sexist, LGBT and disability slurs, so it’s important to make sure we’ve eliminated them from our vocabulary – even the ones that might seem mild or inoffensive.
We can also make a conscious effort to expand our family’s social circles. Try organizing a play date with a new kid at school who doesn’t speak English well, enrolling your child in inclusive extracurricular activities or enlarging your own social circle. I’ve recently become friends with a transgender woman at my workplace and I’ve told my daughters all about her. “She was born a man, but she always felt like she was a woman, so now she is becoming one with the help of doctors,” I explained. “I admire her so much because she was brave enough to follow her heart even if some people might not agree with her choice.”
Expose children to diversity
In addition to socializing with a wide range of people, we can expose our children to diverse experiences to expand their horizons. Try attending local cultural events, traveling to different states and countries, watching movies and TV shows that represent minority groups, choosing toys and dolls that are racially and ethnically diverse, and reading books that celebrate diversity.
Teach children kindness, compassion and empathy
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they feel even when their situation is different from your own. Compassion is recognizing someone else’s misfortune or suffering and wanting to help them. Both of these cognitive skills can be taught to children.
Once again, modelling these qualities is the best way to impart them. Show kindness and compassion to friends, neighbors and strangers whenever you can. Offer to help a mom with a young baby on her hip load groceries into her car. Mow an elderly neighbor’s lawn. Volunteer at your local homeless shelter. If a stranger is rude to you, take it with grace and tell your children, “I guess that person is having a bad day. Hopefully, they’ll feel better later.”
Answer children’s questions honestly and without judgment
If your child asks you why that man “talks funny” or why that woman has “a weird face”, try to avoid scolding them for using inappropriate language. Gently explain that people who look or sound different to us aren’t strange, they’re just different.
When one of my daughters recently asked, “Mum, why is that woman so fat?” (which is not a word she learned to use at home!), I took a deep breath and swallowed my reprimand. After a minute, I said, “People come in all different shapes and sizes. That woman’s feelings could be hurt if she heard someone call her fat, so let’s try not to use that word, OK? The kind thing to do is to not mention people’s weight or appearance.”
Apologize for your children’s mistakes and redirect
There will inevitably be some embarrassing moments along the way. A few months ago, my twins (now four) saw a supermarket cashier with a disability approaching his register using walking sticks. “HA! Mum, look! That man is SO FUNNY!” screamed one of them. I thought I might die of embarrassment as heads swiveled towards us and everyone waited for my reaction.
Thankfully, the man said, “Hi, girls!” and waved a walking stick in their direction. I smiled at him gratefully and said, “Thank you. I apologize for that, we are still learning about what is appropriate and what isn’t.” He smiled and said, “No problem!” Ever since then, the girls yell, “There’s our friend!” whenever they seem him and run up to him for a chat. It warms my heart and I’m thankful to him for educating my girls in such an open-hearted way.