Celebrating Differences: Accepting What Makes Us Unique
By: Rena Rosen, Mayer Kaplan JCC Preschool Teacher and Founder of Art of Compassion and Jamie Miller, LCPC, JCC Chicago Early Childhood Social Services
In today’s society, children have many opportunities to explore similarities and differences of people from various ethnicities, religions, cultures, genders, intellect and physical abilities, among other attributes that make us each unique. With the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday approaching, it is a great time to teach children about acceptance and how to respect and celebrate our differences.
One of the greatest things about young children is their curiosity and innate capacity to have an open mind. Children are constantly observing and asking questions about the world around them. Many of us have been in a busy store or crowded venue when our child shouts out an observation that potentially makes us feel mortified or embarrassed.
“Why does that boy use a wheelchair?”
“Look at the lady? She is using a stick to walk. Why? “
“Why does that girl wear glasses?”
“Why is he talking funny?”
“Why is her skin brown?”
“Why? Why? Why?”
So, what do we do when a child asks us a question we may not know how to answer? Many times our initial reaction may be to quiet our child down and leave the scene. Sometimes we may acknowledge and generalize, “We are all different. We all need different things to help us. That is what makes us special.” Or we might say, “Because that’s how G-d created them.” It is important to remember that these observations and questions from our children are developmentally appropriate and should be valued and used as a teachable moment, rather than reprimanding them for putting us in a situation that potentially made us uncomfortable.
While the responses above are not wrong, it is important to explore and consider the many ways (beyond answering these direct questions) that we can help children understand differences, and teach them about acceptance and appreciating what makes others and ourselves unique. Below are five tips that lay the foundation for us to teach our children to be kind, compassionate, and accepting individuals.
- Modeling- Children look to their parents and caregivers as a model for how to act in unfamiliar situations. They will mirror the values and attitudes of those they love and look up to. Parents who model and display tolerance in their everyday actions and words, teach their children to appreciate differences in others too. Challenge yourself to examine the way you treat and speak to others in a variety of situations. Children hear everything, even when we think they are not listening. Do your words reflect tolerance?
- Be Honest- Answer children’s questions about differences openly and honestly. This teaches children that it is acceptable to notice and discuss differences as long as it is done with respect. When a topic comes up, respond with an answer that matches the simplicity of the question. There is no need to give children more information than they ask for: instead, wait for more questions. Children are very interested in what a child can do. Also focus your responses on each individual’s abilities and positive character traits. You might even encourage your child to ask the person questions directly if the opportunity presents itself.
- Family Ties- It is important to acknowledge and respect differences within your own family as well. Identify the strengths of each of your children and discuss their varying interests and abilities. What makes each of you unique and special?
- Monitor Media- The media can be a powerful source of perpetuating untrue and unfair stereotypes. Be thoughtful about the television shows, books, and games you allow your child to view or play. Here are a few book suggestions to read with your children that help teach compassion and celebrate differences:
- We’re Different, We’re the Same (Sesame Street) by, Bobbi Kates
- Accept and Value Each Person by Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed.
- It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Parr
- I Accept You as You Are by David Parker
- The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric
- Build Self-Esteem- Children who are valued and respected, ultimately feel better about themselves. These children are more likely to interact with others using the Golden Rule of “treat others as you would want to be treated.” Validate your children’s feelings, appreciate their observations, take their questions seriously, and praise them for making positive choices that demonstrate compassion and empathy.
Children will generally come back to you when they need more information if they see that you are willing to talk to them candidly about these topics. It is our job as parents and educators to teach children to be open-minded and respectful of the differences that exist among people within and outside of our community. The most effective way to teach children the “Golden Rule” is to lead by example. For more information, visit Rena’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/artocompassion/