Talking to Kids About Differences
You are in line at the supermarket.
“Daddy, why does that person have only one arm?"
"Why does that person talk funny?"
"What happened to that person's hair?"
The questions or statements are usually quite loud. You and your child are suddenly much more entertaining than the National Enquirer. It may make an amusing anecdote some day, but in the moment it feels awkward and embarrassing. Having some discussions ahead of time can be useful. These chats can start with conversations about how everyone is the same and different.
How are people different? They might have different hair, different colored skin, different language, different sizes, different families, different beliefs and different abilities.
How are people the same? Everyone needs to eat, sleep, breathe and poop. Most people want to have a friend. It is a great exercise after noticing that someone is different to follow up with finding things in common.
There are some awesome children's books out there that can be an excellent resource. One that Lauren reads to Elliot is aptly called Same but Different. There are many with the similar theme.
Also make sure to talk about what things actually matter! Having someone who is kind is much more important than how tall they are. Society places way too much value on appearance. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could change that? Talk about how everyone has things that they are good at. Someone who can’t see might have exceptional hearing.
Expose your kids to people who don’t look like you. Make sure that the books you read have many colors and ethnicities represented. When you draw, make sure you have crayons in all the lovely shades of skin that make up the human race. While there is certainly a time and place for everything, where kids are concerned, it is more often when we refuse to talk about something that it becomes dangerous or scary.
One anecdote that I have shared in the past stems from a walk down Haight street many years ago. It was mid October and my family was shopping for Halloween costumes. A man walked past us. He was painted shiny gold from head to toe. Other than that, he was completely naked. Sandy, Lauren and I did a little double take. Alana walked right by and didn’t even pay any attention. That right there is the definition of someone who was born and brought up in San Francisco!
The world would be so much duller if everything was the same. Variety makes things so much nicer and more interesting. This conversation doesn’t even need to start talking about people. When you take a walk, point out all the different kinds of flowers that you see. Some are big, some are tiny. The different colors are fabulous. They all have different smells. Some have thorns. The message here is simple. It would be a shame if everything were the same.
So many things in the news today are a stark reminder that human beings become tribal very easily. ‘Us versus Them’ is all too common of a theme. I would like to think that kids aren’t born that way. Hatred and intolerance are taught. Young children are drawn to people who look like themselves. Dr. Ted has some interesting data on this at the end of the post. It is the adults in their lives who need to give the message that it is safe to connect with others.
Teach your kids to have curiosity and respect for the cultures of others. Don’t forget to enrich them with your own culture and traditions. Tolerant, curious, and open minded kids are the hope for our future. Alas there is nothing simple when it comes to the discussion about race. Obviously the deeper and difficult topic of racism needs to be age appropriate. If we ever want real change, it is essential that parents start from the very beginning to teach our kids to accept and celebrate others, rather than fear and vilify someone who is not exactly like them. February is both Black History Month and the month when Chinese New Years celebrations take place, so it feels like a great time to pay attention to this issue.
Oh, and the supermarket situation? Maybe your child will be like Alana and not notice! But the conversation ahead of time could be:
“Some people are happy to talk about what makes them different. Some people are not. It is important to make sure that we don’t make someone feel awkward. If you see something that you have a question about, let me know and when we get home we can see if we can find answers together.”
This topic can feel triggering for many people, here are some extra important words from Oath's Therapist Brittany Williams.
When we become parents we do not stop being human. That means our ability to subconsciously react does not magically disappear. If given the choice, most people would always prefer to respond with consciousness than to subconsciously react. One way to decrease the gap between the two experiences is by increasing mindfulness
Take a moment to check-in with yourself and mindfully listen to how you organically responded as you read this article. If you aren’t sure I encourage you to re-read the blog and this time, tune in and listen to what surfaces from within. What thoughts did you see cross your mind? Did you move close to a stress response (hold your breath, tighten your fists, clench your jaw, etc.) at any particular part? Perhaps you disagreed or were perfectly aligned? Maybe even a past experience came to mind. How did you interact with this material? Did you skim verses slowly digest?
Whatever comes up for you, use this intel to deepen or adjust your own level of comfort with differences. Perhaps engage with a trusted confidant, mentor, or mental health provider if you feel that would be helpful. Taking the time to do this can decrease your odds of reacting and increase your odds for responding during those supermarket moments. Lastly, a gentle reminder for all parents when you find yourself parenting from a triggered or reactive state: Your reaction is not because your child is behaving a certain way or has said something socially or otherwise inappropriate. Your reaction is always because of what that behavior means to you, and that is triggered from your own past experiences.
Dr. Ted’s Research
Soon after young infants develop the ability to recognize faces, research shows that they can distinguish between faces of different colored skin. This can be as early as 3 months, but is usually most apparent between 6-9 months. You can imagine why this skill is advantageous from an evolutionary psychology perspective: we want to be able to determine who’s in our “tribe.” However, it’s not till much later (around ages 3-5) that children gain the ability to describe differences between themselves and others, such as gender qualities, the construct of race, and so on. This is the prime age to teach acceptance of variability, and kids tend to be very receptive to it!