How to Teach Children About Cultural Awareness and Diversity by Christy Tirrell-Corbin, Ph.D.

Sep 12, 2019 | Parenting Blog | 0 comments

Have you ever had an embarrassing moment where your child (maybe quite loudly) asked you about some characteristic of another person? For example, “Mommy, why does that woman look like that?” The typical parental reaction is to attempt to quiet the child and move on as quickly as possible. As adults we’ve been taught not to ask such questions (at least not out loud). In contrast, children are not yet conditioned to refrain from sharing what they think or asking what they want to know.
Earlier on than most people realize, children become aware of and intrigued by the difference in the way people look and behave. In fact, Phyllis A. Katz, while a professor at the University of Colorado, found babies as young as six-months of age stared significantly longer at photographs of adults who were of a different color than their parents. The research evidence clearly indicates that children notice differences in race, ability, family composition and a multitude of other factors. Their questions are attempts to make sense of those observations so they can make sense of their own world.
As a parent, I know that children tend to ask the most challenging questions at the most inconvenient times. Rather than trying to quiet your child (which implies there is something wrong with the other person or with asking questions) take these opportunities to help your child understand and respect differences and similarities among those in your community. Provide brief, objective responses to their questions. For example, if your child comments about the difference in a person’s skin color tell her, “His skin color is white because his biological parents had white skin.” If your child asks you why a person is in a wheelchair tell him, “There is a medical reason why she is unable to walk by herself, so she uses the wheelchair to get from one place to another.”
By helping your child understand and respect similarities and differences you will also help your child to understand who he is in the context of your race, ethnic group, culture, religion, language and familial history. In so doing, you will provide your child with personally meaningful information and also introduce concepts from anthropology, history, religion, geography, etc.
Use these tips to spark your children’s curiosity about who they (and others) are in their world:1. I love you/我愛你/Te quiero.Teaching your children words in the native language(s) of your family is a personal way to introduce them to different cultures, as well as family history. What better words to start with than, “I love you”. Moreover, since many classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, consider teaching your child key phrases, such as “thank you” in a language represented in her classroom, which not only models respect for diversity but could allow her to forge new friendships. There are an abundance of apps that translate and speak words in different languages that can support this effort.

2. Celebrating others.Children’s books are wonderful resources for helping your child develop a sense of his or her own identity, as well as an understanding of those who are different in terms of race, family composition, religious beliefs and ability. Visit your library for books such as: It’s Okay to be Different (diversity); The Skin You Live In(acceptance); Same, Same But Different (culture and geography); Whoever You Are(diversity); Where Does God Live (religion); What is God (religion); Over the Moon (adoption); Don’t Call Me Special (disabilities); My Brother Sammy(autism); and The Family Book (different family configurations).

3. Exposure to other cultures brings personal meaning.While children’s books open children’s eyes to differences, actual experiences have the most profound influence on what children think and believe. Here are more hands-on activities you can try:

  • Encourage cross-racial/ethnic/religious/ability friendships.
  • Expose your children to foods from different cultures, like classic pork and cabbage dumplings or kimchi.
  • Attend different events/festivals that celebrate a particular ethnic group, holiday or personal accomplishment, like the Special Olympics, the Chinese New Year or Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.
  • Whether big or small, children’s or history museums house an abundance of artifacts from different cultures and countries. Since museums can be overwhelming for young children it helps to talk with your child about what you will see, what she wants to learn and then focus on that part of the museum (especially if the museum is large).
  • Watch movies set in other cultures like My Neighbor TotoroKirikou and the Sorceress, and The Red Balloon.

4. The most powerful role model.While all of the activities listed above have been found to promote cultural awareness and respect, no activity is as powerful as the role model of a child’s parent(s). Children become culturally sensitive and respectful when they see adults who are culturally sensitive and respectful, and who take a stand against bias, racism or insensitivity.

Lastly, it is important for adults to take a “strengths based” perspective when talking with children about those who are different from the child. This perspective focuses on the positive characteristics of a person and her abilities, what that person is able to do or does (as compared to what he cannot) and how differences make our world a better place.

By helping your child understand and respect similarities and differences, you will help him realize he is a wonderfully unique person among many other wonderfully unique people on this earth.

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Christy Tirrell-Corbin, PhD is the Director of Early Childhood/Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Maryland where she teaches a course entitled, Culture and Community Perspectives: The Diverse World of the Child. Dr. Tirrell-Corbin’s research interests focus on family engagement, notably around teachers’ beliefs and practices around issues of race and culture. She also serves as a consultant for several educational organizations, including PBS Kids and National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter @TirrellCorbin.


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