The Parent’s Guide to Teaching Kids About Cultural Diversity and Inclusion

Help your child have a deep appreciation for the enriching differences she’ll encounter throughout her life with these strategies and multicultural books.
By Kelsey Kloss
Feb 15, 2019

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The Parent’s Guide to Teaching Kids About Cultural Diversity and Inclusion

Feb 15, 2019

You’ve heard it before: Kids are sponges! They’re constantly observing and forming opinions about themselves and others, which means this is a crucial time to teach them how to value the beautiful diversity in our world. Of course, we all want our kids to be the best global citizens they can be — but sometimes, it can be difficult to know where to start.  

“From a very early age, children recognize differences, and it’s important that parents, teachers, and educational leaders are mindful of that and play a role in celebrating those differences,” says Louie Rodriguez, Ed.D., associate professor of education, society, and culture at the University of California, Riverside. “The earlier we can do that in our homes, schools, and communities, the better we’ll be at continuing those conversations as children go from K-12 to higher education.”

Here are just a few ways you can teach the value of multiculturalism and inclusivity throughout your child’s life, and the books that will help you along the way. 

Encourage your kids to explore the world with open eyes, mind and heart.

The environmentalist Baba Dioum once said: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The same goes for multicultural inclusivity — think about what your child is taught on a daily basis about people of different races and ethnicities, religions, disabilities and abilities, gender identities, socioeconomic status, and so forth. Help her envision a world that actually represents the one she lives in by exposing her to a wide range of books, toys, foods, TV shows, movies, music, experiences, and, of course, people. “There are many different ways you can introduce the idea that we live in a multicultural world, and to provide materials like books where children see both themselves and other types of people reflected,” says Rodriguez.  (Check out these books that make it their mission to teach kindness and empathy.)

Get comfortable talking about differences.

Have honest, age-appropriate conversations with your child about differences he recognizes in others. For instance, if your child points out other skin colors, you might say, “Yes, people do have different skin colors, and that’s the beauty of the world we live in.”

As your child grows, dive into more in-depth conversations about how others perceive differences, and how all groups can be accepting of each other. “Many people want to emphasize that we’re more similar than we are different,” says Sandra Graham, Ph.D., University of California presidential chair in education and diversity. “But pretending those differences don’t exist isn’t very productive, because kids will soon see a lot of evidence that it’s not true in real life, and that some differences have really important societal implications.”

Discuss what’s happening in the news.

By the time she’s in elementary school, your child understands more about issues she hears about in school or on the news, and she might ask you about current events. Take advantage of time in the car or at the dinner table to have honest discussions about what she wants to know. Get her opinion on what’s happening, and ask how she's feeling: What makes her feel happy, uncomfortable, angry, or sad about the situation?

And of course, stay mindful of what’s playing on the television in the background at home. “Children’s perceptions are continuously and constantly being formulated,” says Rodriguez. “It’s important that we be very intentional about what we’re exposing our children to, and discuss any stereotypes when they emerge so they don’t get perpetuated.”

Prepare him for what he’ll read on the internet.

Kids are more connected with the rest of the world today than ever before, which can increase their exposure to incorrect facts, toxic comments, and cyberbullies. Because it’s difficult to monitor internet use, it’s important for parents to prepare kids for what they’ll see online long before they connect, says Graham.

To do so, you might talk about how some people use the internet to spread extreme views (just think of news article comments or social media rants), and how negative and incorrect stereotypes can be perpetuated online — and the harm those stereotypes do. You can also teach your child how to have a discerning eye for online content written in an intentionally inflammatory way, or how to guess when someone is only telling one side of a story.

Learn your school’s bullying protocol.

This is important to do before any issues potentially arise, whether that be your child being the target of intolerant behavior or witnessing it from others. Get familiar with who you can report bullying to at your child’s school, and the policies around it. “Work on creating a relationship with your kid where they feel like they can come forward to talk about it, and encourage them to not be tolerant of this behavior,” says Farha Abbasi, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University.  

On the other hand, we can do everything we can as parents to teach good behavior, but at some point your child might be the one to say something hurtful and unaccepting toward someone else. “Talk to them about it by first establishing a safe environment and saying, ‘I love you, I trust you, and I am just trying to understand why you reacted this way,’” says Abbasi. “Then you can ingrain in them that it’s not acceptable behavior.” Along with taking the appropriate disciplinary steps, have a serious conversation with her about the right ways to handle disagreements (if that’s what spurred her remarks), role-playing conversations if needed — and ask her to sincerely apologize to anyone she’s hurt.  These books about bullying can help start a conversation.

Encourage critical thinking and donate multicultural books to the classroom.

Challenge your child to think critically about the curriculum he’s learning in school. For instance, is there a point of view that might be missing from his history book? Are his English class book report assignments limited in terms of diverse characters?

You may even teach him that sometimes it’s OK to gently (and respectfully) challenge how something is taught, says Jodi Marie Thesing-Ritter, executive director for equity, diversity, and inclusion at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “It can be a good critical thinking exercise to go online with your child and pick out diverse books together to donate to their classroom,” she says.

Whether you decide to donate to your child’s school or enhance your own home library with books about diversity, these multicultural children's books will get you started. (Browse our full list of multicultural children's books.)

Picture Books

1. We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands — Award-winning illustrator Rafael López celebrates young people throughout the world with this stunning, rhythmic read-along that lifts up unity and friendship.

2. Why Am I Me?  In this poetic tale, two very different characters unknowingly ask the same question: “Why I am I me?” Your child will become absorbed in gorgeous illustrations that emphasize the many different qualities human beings share. 

3. Hidden Figures  Inspiration abounds in this awe-worthy true tale about the four brilliant black female mathematicians who helped NASA launch men into space.

See other multicultural book recommendations for ages 3 to 5.

Elementary School

1. She Dared: Malala Yousafzai — Children and adults around the world have been inspired by the incredible story of Malala, a Pakistani girl who was attacked for advocating for girls’ rights and education. Still, she persevered, and eventually became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner.

2. American Girl: A Girl Named Helen  When Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing at a very young age, her parents hired a teacher to help her understand the world around her. This book tells children the remarkable story of how Helen defied expectations and became a legendary activist for Americans with disabilities.

3. This Is Just a Test  David Da-Wei Horowitz gets caught in the middle of cultures, friends, and his Chinese-Jewish-American family in this hilarious, heartwarming tale about a multicultural preteen living during the height of the Cold War.  

See other book picks that celebrate diversity for ages 6 to 10.

Middle School & High School

1. The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano  Evelyn is 14 years old and living in Spanish Harlem in 1969, a fiery time when young Puerto Rican activists protest in the streets. Meanwhile, her sassy Abuela has moved from Puerto Rico to live with her family. Tempers flare and loyalties are tested as Evelyn learns important truths about her Latino heritage, and the young people who shaped a nation.

2. And She Was — Dara had always lived a sheltered life with her single mom, until she digs up her birth certificate. She’s shocked by what she learns: Her mother is transgender, and transitioned when Dara was a baby. As a result, Dara embarks on a life-changing, revealing journey to learn about her extended family—and about understanding and acceptance.

3. Pinned — In this tale of self-discovery and friendship, Autumn and Adonis couldn’t be more different, except for one thing: They are both dealing with a disability. Outgoing Autumn has a learning disability that makes reading a painful struggle, while shy, book-loving Adonis uses to a wheelchair. Told in alternating voices, this story explores how aspects of ourselves that some consider weaknesses are actually assets that forever change us and those we love.  

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