Want to raise kind kids? Make their world more diverse.

The Christmas season is here. As we sing songs about peace on earth, goodwill toward men, I’d like to chat about what has become a vaguely loaded subject.

Parents, pull up a chair.  Let’s talk diversity.

Your kids’ early experiences shape their view of what is normal. If their relationships center on people who look like them, talk like them, and have backgrounds similar to theirs, it will be much harder for them to relate as adults to the exceptionally diverse world that awaits.

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Our friends Kate and Hayden

It’s not news that our culture is more divided than it’s been in a very long time. We’re losing the ability to empathize with people who are different from ourselves. As our social interactions move online, our differences are magnified. The only cure – I’ll say it again – THE ONLY CURE is to build real connections with people who are different from ourselves.

Take a hard look at your social circles. What do your children see? Who are their friends? There’s a good chance your child’s world is much less diverse than the wider world around them.

I’m not judging. It’s natural for us to be drawn to people with shared experiences. We need those people. It’s not easy to expand beyond that comfort zone. Even if you want to, it can be hard to know where to start.

To get you going, here are a few tips for building more diversity into your kids’ daily lives:

1. Step outside your neighborhood. Widening your geographic circle can immediately broaden your kids’ experiences. Consider playgrounds, Mother’s Day Out programs, churches, libraries and social events in more diverse areas. Visit an accessible playground near you. Reach out to the people you meet there and look for opportunities to build new friendships.

2. Think beyond race. Diversity is not just about skin color. As the parent of a child with a disability, it’s important to me that your children experience disability as a natural part of life. Whatever your own beliefs and identity, your children need to be able to interact as equals with people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, religions, economic levels, sexual orientations, political beliefs… Think as broadly as possible about the perspectives that are missing from your kids’ world.

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Lina, Baby Margaret and me

3. Take a close look at your kids’ play. Do all their dolls or action figures look like them? What type of world are they experiencing as they play? Kids need to see themselves in their toys, but they also need differences to be normalized through play. This blog links to some fantastically diverse toy options.

4. Use books to broaden your child’s world. Research tells us that literary fiction builds empathy. The stories we read take us to new places and allow us to connect with a limitless range of characters. The books your children read from the earliest ages can shape their views. As your children grow, encourage them to explore stories outside their normal areas of interest or experience. Fill your home with books that allow your children to see the world through all kinds of eyes.

5. Talk about it. I hear white friends say things like, “Why are people making race such a big deal? I was raised to be color blind.” But let’s face it: you’re not color blind (or disability blind, etc.). Neither are your children. Those of us who are not part of a given minority group often miss the ways our language, systems, and cultural norms dehumanize and “otherize.” (This article is an excellent exploration of research on children and racial perceptions.) Talk to your kids about inequality. Call out discrimination when you see it. You don’t have to know all the answers. It’s not about creating guilt. Just acknowledging the bias and barriers others experience – and the ways we can help – can go a long way to raising children who will make the world a better place.

We live in unsettling times. Divisions are deep, and civility is waning. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Christmas song has it right: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

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