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Preparing Children for a Multicultural World

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Recent remarks made by radio show host Don Imus have the whole country focusing on race. Parents can use this event as a teachable moment" to talk to their kids about being sensitive to racial remarks and understanding different cultures. They can also take this opportunity to emphasize to children the need to be intolerant to intolerance.

Watch NYU Child Study Center Director Dr. Harold Koplewicz on the Today Show with host Al Roker, director Spike Lee, and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg as they talk about children and the race debate. This article "Preparing Children for a Multicultural World," offers tips for parents for talking to children about different cultures and how to react when they hear insensitive remarks being made about groups of people.

Introduction

You're standing in the supermarket checkout line with your 3-year-old when suddenly she points to another little girl sitting in a nearby shopping cart and asks in a rather loud voice, "Mommy, why is that girl's skin brown?" As heads turn, you become embarrassed. You worry, "What kind of parent do they think I am?" or, "How should I answer?" or, even more disturbing, "Why would my child ask such a thing?"

Sound familiar? You are not alone. Many parents have experienced similar incidents at some point during their child's preschool years. Parents often respond with fear and concern—"Is my child prejudiced?"

Preschoolers have a natural curiosity about themselves, others and the world. While they may notice differences in appearance, they are not making value judgments when they make such comments. Parents can use such opportunities to teach positive values and tolerance. As your preschooler is beginning to learn how to behave and interact with others, it is an ideal time to help him or her learn that the world and the people with whom they interact are richly diverse. This teaching process comes easier to some parents than others.

Beginning at the age of three, children start to become aware of color and develop skills in racial classification; that is, they begin to accurately group people by skin color but not by race. It is not until around age five that children begin to understand that skin color means something more than mere color.  It's important to remember that children aren't born with adult-like biases. They don't see "reality' the way adults do. Young children respond to what is directly observable. Parents can do much to foster an environment that allows children to become racially, ethnically and culturally healthy. The following suggestions can help parents teach tolerance and acceptance at an early age:

Provide the basics

Children who are raised in a nurturing environment where they feel loved, supported, and valued have the best chance of developing a healthy self-image. If your child feels good about herself and confident about her place in the world, she will be less likely to be fearful of people who are different from her.

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