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Foster Care - Training - Teaching Your Child About Cultural Diversity

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We live in a diverse society that includes people of many races, cultures, beliefs, and physical and mental characteristics. Teaching your child about diversity can help your child grow up to be open-minded, fair, respectful of others’ rights and feelings, and aware of people’s similarities and differences. As a foster parent, your influence on how a child perceives others will make a great impact. Learning about diversity will help your child succeed in life’s changing situations. Even young children notice differences in others-gender, skin color, physical abilities, etc., and begin to form opinions. Talk to your child about the harm caused by:

Stereotyping - Assuming all people in a group are the same, stereotyping things or ideas can be how a child tries to make sense of the world. For example, if a child is stung by a bee, he or she may say “every bee will sting me." Stress the importance of not stereotyping people, because they are individuals and differ from everyone else.

Prejudice - Using stereotypes to judge others as good or bad, nice or mean, smart or stupid, etc., before getting to know them.

Discrimination - Ignoring, avoiding, excluding or even attacking people just because they are different from you. Assure your child that everyone has likes and dislikes and that is ok. As we get to know a person, it’s natural to form opinions about him or her. What’s not ok is to like or dislike people just because of their accent, color, ethnic heritage, social class, etc.

Healthy self-esteem allows children to respect others. Children with poor self-esteem are more likely to be prejudiced. They may put others down to feel better about themselves. Help build your child’s esteem by letting your child know that he or she is important and special, is respected as an individual, has talents and strengths, and has rights and responsibilities.

Enjoy Diversity in Daily Life

Toys and games: Avoid toys that encourage stereotypes (cowboy and Indian figures, for example). Don’t limit activities based on outdated gender roles. Let boys play with cooking sets. Let girls pretend to be firefighters.

Use a world map or globe to locate countries that you hear about in the news or read about in books. Talk about how billions of people from many cultures share one small planet.

Music: Borrow tapes or CD’s of world music from a library or buy your own. Listen to radio programs of ethnic music.

Books: Read fairy tales and fables from other cultures. Talk about common themes, such as love and hate, honesty and hard work. Be aware that some books, especially older ones contain negative stereotypes. Teach your child that these stereotypes are wrong. Ask a children’s librarian to recommend books with characters from different groups and lands.

TV, newspapers and magazines: Watch shows about different cultures. Discuss any stereotypes or prejudice that you see on TV or in photos. For example, are the doctors usually male? Are the criminals often people of color? Talk about news events that show injustice or poverty at home or abroad. Rent or check out movies from the library about children in other countries.

Foods: Find out where favorite foods come from (lasagna from Italy, stir fry dishes from Asia, etc). With your child, prepare a recipe from a different culture. Serve it with a familiar food to encourage acceptance. Note: kids can be picky about new foods. Tell your child it's ok not to like a food after trying it, but he or she should not make fun of it.

Watch what you say and do: Children will follow your example, no matter how often you talk about diversity. Examine your own prejudices and work to overcome them. No one is completely without prejudice. For example, some adults wrongly assume that a person who is homeless did something to deserve it, or a well dressed child is smarter than a poorly dressed child. Think before you speak. Is it necessary to point out a person’s race, gender, religion, etc? For example, could you say “the bus driver” rather than “the lady bus driver”? Put the person first when you do mention differences. This helps keep the focus on the individual. For example, say “the singer who is blind”, not “the blind singer”.

Avoid ethnic, racial and sexist humor even about your own race or gender or ethnic heritage. (It only encourages more of the same.) Teach your children to say, “That’s not funny!” or “That’s not fair!” to racial, ethnic, or sexist jokes.

Avoid general statements, such as “Old people can be like that.” General statements can lead to stereotypes.

Think about other messages you may unknowingly send your child: For example: Do you lock your car doors only when you drive through certain neighborhoods? Does your body become tense when you’re near people who are different from you?

Examine your work and social life: For example: Do you welcome relationships with people different from you? Do you invite people of other cultures and ethnicity to your home?

Other Ideas to Learn More About Other Cultures

  • Explore diversity in your community and beyond. Learn the history of your area. Who were the original inhabitants? Who were the first non-native settlers? Where did they come from? Visit historic sites.
  • Encourage the study of a foreign language. Tour the phone book and look through the white pages to see different ethnic backgrounds revealed in family names.
  • Take a new route to the library, mall, etc. to learn about other neighborhoods. Talk about what you see.
  • Attend folk celebrations held in your community.
  • Explore museums in your area and when on vacations.
  • Visit a place of worship other than your own.
  • Encourage your child to play with children of different backgrounds. Help your child meet others through sports, clubs, summer camps, etc.
  • Help an older child become a pen pal with a child in another region or another country.
  • Invite a visitor from another country to your home. Consider having a foreign exchange student live with you.

Be prepared for children’s questions and comments. Some common questions and some possible answers:

“Why is his skin that color?” “Everyone has something called melanin in his or her skin. Melanin prevents sunburn. The more you have, the darker your skin. People whose ancestors came from very sunny places have more melanin than people whose ancestors came from less sunny places.”

“Why do they talk funny?” “They don’t talk funny. They are learning to speak English. They speak their own language just as well as we speak English.”

“What’s wrong with her legs?” “I don’t know. Her legs may have been hurt in an accident. Or she may have been born with legs that were not strong enough. The braces help her walk.”

Some basic tips: Never ignore questions about differences or say “It’s not polite to ask that.” Your child may think this means differences are bad. Answer simply and matter-of-factly. If you don’t know the answer, say you’ll try to find out.

Some Common Situations

Name-calling and teasing: Tell your child that name-calling and teasing hurt as much as hitting or punching. If your child is on the receiving end, help him or her plan what to say next time.

Excluding: If you hear your child excluding someone from a game, playground activity, etc., because of the person’s background, step in at once. Say that it’s not fair to leave people out because of color, gender, etc.

Other adults can also influence children’s attitudes: Share your ideas and feelings about diversity with:

Friends and relatives: Make it clear that ethnic jokes, racial slurs, etc., are not welcome in your home.

Youth groups: Encourage activities, field trips, etc., that expose children to diversity.

Schools: Work with parent groups, teachers and administrators to increase the awareness and appreciation of differences. Look into pen-pal programs, programs in which children from other schools exchange letters and visits, or work on joint projects, community service activities, and classes that teach children to settle conflicts without violence.

Open the world of diversity to your child. Help your child develop healthy self-esteem. Teach respect for all people. Be an example to your children by showing respect for other people in what you say and do.

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