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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:
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.
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 Don’t limit activities based on outdated gender roles.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?
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.
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:
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.