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With their wide-eyed curiosity and innate sense of justice, children are not born prejudiced. While they may notice differences among people, they don’t typically attach stereotypes to what they see. Most experts agree that while children are curious about difference, they learn prejudice from others.
As parents, we can have a profound influence over how our kids react to a variety of cultures or ethnicities. “It starts with compassion for our kids, really listening to them,” says Patty Wipfler, founding director of Hand in Hand, a nonprofit parent leadership institute. “Usually right underneath an intolerance is a little vulnerable area where they are frightened or scared or misinformed,” she adds.
Since teaching tolerance is an ongoing process, the following guidelines may help you establish an open dialogue with your child:
Reflect On Your Own Childhood
In order to really understand where intolerance comes from, Wipfler suggests that parents spend time reflecting on their own childhood, recalling situations where they witnessed or experienced racism. "Every one of us needs time to go back and talk about what we saw growing up," notes Wipfler.
"Mommy, why does that man have that special robe on his head?" "When I went to Shari's house after school she told me that she can't eat pork. Why is that?" When it comes to kids, curiosity is par for the course. What makes the difference is how you handle it. Teach children from an early age to ask questions rather than judge when they see something that looks different. And try to answer with facts, rather than judgments of your own.
Face Differences Honestly
If we tell our kids that everyone is the same, they will quickly start to question us. Instead, be honest with your kids about the differences that exist between people and groups. Physical differences, such as skin color, are just one difference. Also talk to your kids about how people celebrate different holidays, religions, and other traditions.
Exposure to Variety
Children won't be comfortable with difference if they never experience it. Expose your kids to food, languages, and cultural festivals from cultures around the world . When possible, enroll them in a school or other activities that include a mix of children from various races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Address Prejudicial Language
If you hear your child make a prejudicial remark about someone else, address it right away. Ask, "What do you think your words mean?" Explain the true meaning of prejudicial language and really listen to see if your child is using such language to hide a deeper fear.
Read Diverse Materials
Fortunately there is a wealth of children's literature that addresses multicultural and tolerance themes. For the youngest set, try Whoever You Are by Mem Fox, The Cow That Went OINK by Bernard Most, or The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss. Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl's Baseball Dream by Crystal Hubbard or William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow are good choices for slightly older kids. Use these books as teaching opportunities, discussing the characters, art, and other customs that are presented.
Ultimately, overcoming prejudice requires that we experience our surroundings with an open mind, compassion, and an extended hand. Your kids will look to you for guidance. Prejudice isn’t inherent, it’s learned. And so is tolerance.
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