Here are some tips on talking to children about discrimination.
Most people want their children to respect others despite noticeable differences. In the real world, however, kids are forced to interact with those who refuse to accept others because of race, culture, ethnicity and gender. So how do you teach kids to accept others, while helping them cope with bigotry?
When Do I Start?
Since children start asking questions from the moment they begin talking, it's best to confront the subject of discrimination as soon as possible. Even toddlers wonder about the differences and similarities between people. That said, it's especially important to engage your children on the topic of racism between the ages of five and eight. This is when kids begin placing actual value judgements on differences and similarities. They hate to lose and love to win. They select best friends. They also exclude or are excluded based on religion, ethnicity or race.
When children enter school, their understanding of the world begins to deepen. Unfavorable social constructs are forced upon them, and parents are no longer able to shelter them as they once did. As they become exposed to a diverse range of attitudes and ideas, children inevitably face bigotry. In some instances, they become the target of these bigotries. In other cases, they are the source. In even more cases, they feel forced to go along with the bigotry - even if they reject it intellectually - so they won't stand out for the "wrong" reasons.
Because these types of attitudes begin to grow rigid by the fourth grade, it's a good idea to broach the subject as early as possible, so you can provide guidance during this turbulent, impressionable time.
What Can I Say?
When they consider talking to their children about discrimination, many parents imagine a one-time discussion akin to explaining the "birds and the bees." In reality, however, the subject of discrimination should be open and ongoing. Whenever an opportunity arises, parents should take advantage by engaging their children with questions and guidance. At the same time, an initial conversation can help frame your child's perspective. To plan a complete strategy, consider the following tips:
Start small, using age-appropriate language that's easy to understand. Don't overwhelm the child. The conversation will get more nuanced as they mature.
Encourage your child to talk openly. Don't be surprised if they already harbor judgment. Calmly listen and correct without shaming the child.
Help the child understand the benefits of diversity. Explain how different experiences and backgrounds promote creativity and progress.
Explain how discrimination causes pain and unfairness. Explain how we lose opportunities to learn and connect when we discriminate against other people.
Seize opportunities to raise discussions. Use discrimination on TV, in books, video games or in real life as catalysts for conversation and education.
If you see your child using discriminatory language, calmly address the issue without punishing. Try to reframe the child's perspective to one of tolerance and understanding.
Expose your child to concepts and people from diverse backgrounds. By expanding their horizons, you can help them understand that differences make us better and not worse.
When Your Child Is a Target for Discrimination
Children are notorious for alienating kids who stand out. Race, gender, religion and ethnicity are all potential targets for bullying. These days, children can also be targeted for having same-sex parents or for their own sexuality. It's important for parents to take practical steps to prepare their children if they believe discrimination will be an issue. It's best to start early, explaining that there are people who treat others unfairly because of culture, race and other differences.
You can instill a sense of pride and confidence by helping your kids learn about their culture and background. At the same time, you should also take practical steps that will help in day-to-day life. Make sure your child understands that discrimination is akin to bullying. Have them report any inappropriate behavior, so you can speak to school administrators to resolve the issue. If discrimination happens outside school, encourage your child to communicate his or her feelings. You can also help your child come up with strategies for avoiding biased people when possible.