When I was growing up in Laredo, TX, my mother and I were waiting at the doctor’s office one day. My mom took a small piece of paper out of her purse, folded it, and tore it along the fold to make a rectangle. Then she asked me to fold it in half. A few more folds, an inside-out turn, and voilà! We’d made a paper boat.
That memory stuck with me. My mom explained that she had learned origami from her aunt as a child. I continue to be amazed that this ancient Japanese art traveled across the ocean, over the desert to my grandmother’s small town of Torreón, Coahuila, in northern Mexico, and crossed the border to Texas into my mother’s home.
As a parent, you are your child’s guide to the world. When you tell him about your own childhood (your neighborhood, your school, the foods you liked, what you did for fun, and who your friends were), it gives him a sense of belonging and a safe foundation from which he can, with you by his side, begin to explore the ways other families live their own unique lives.
As you and your child learn about other people, places, and ideas together, an important realization will emerge: that differences aren’t negative or frightening, but natural, fascinating, and fun! Simply put, diversity makes life more interesting. That’s a critical life lesson, since relating to people of different ethnicities and backgrounds is a necessity in today’s world.
PLUS: 7 BOOKS THAT TEACH KIDS ABOUT DIVERSITY
Learning About Differences
A 2-year-old doesn’t have the same ability to understand and appreciate differences between herself and others as, say, a 6-year-old does. But by responding to your child in age-appropriate ways and modeling an open attitude, you can teach her to not only embrace and value diversity but also to resist prejudice and discrimination. Here’s how to start:
Don’t sweep your child’s questions or comments under the rug. Kids are curious creatures. When they ask a question or make a comment about someone who appears different from themselves, it usually does not stem from bias or prejudice — they are just trying to gather information.
Often, children simply want to know why people are different and how those differences relate to them. Ask a few questions before answering to get a clearer idea of what your child really wants to know and the ideas he might already have on the subject.
If you’re unsure about what to say, try: “I need to think about that.” Once you’ve formed a response, you can go back and say: “Yesterday, you asked me a question about _____. Let’s talk about it.” If you choose not to answer at all in an attempt to foster a sense of “we’re all the same,” it can backfire: Children often interpret a lack of response to mean that it’s not OK to talk about differences.
Make an example of yourself. When you model an openness to differences and a rejection of prejudice in your behavior and attitudes, it conveys a powerful message. For example, seeing you in positive relationships with a variety of people teaches your child to value others who are different from your family. Make sure you reflect diversity through your selection of books, toys, outings, and music, too.
Listen in on her conversations. Children try to clarify what’s true and what isn’t about the world through play. They grapple with thorny questions about gender roles, identity, and racial differences, particularly when they are four and five. If you listen in on their play, you might hear some surprising debates: “Girls aren’t fast enough to play soccer” or “You can’t speak Spanish because you don’t look Mexican.” If your child says something like this, ask him why he thinks his statement is true. Listen to his answer and initiate a discussion about it.
Address racism and prejudice head-on. Let your child know from a very early age that name-calling of any kind is hurtful and wrong. Even if your child is too young to know the full meaning of a particular name, she can understand that another person will be hurt by it.
Teach your child to think critically about prejudice. Use the techniques of examination and questioning. How can you tell when a word or an image is unfair or hurtful?
Introduce new languages and cultures. Label objects in English and Spanish (or another language), and read bilingual picture books. Collect coins from other countries. Teach your child to say hello in several languages.
Give your child opportunities to interact and make friends with different people. One-on-one contact is the most immediate way to learn about other cultures. This can happen at a festival or even just your local playground.
Introduce Her to the World
Engaging with maps and globes is a great way for children to investigate different parts of our world and the people who live there. Here are a few activities to try:
Explore a variety of maps and globes. Some maps show continents and countries, while others focus on animals that are found around the world. Child-friendly atlases include illustrations and information about cultures. Interactive electronic globes are irresistible to kids. Touch a country with a pointer and you can hear the name of the country and its leader and even listen to the national anthem!
Decorate with maps. Ask your child if he would like to hang up maps of the United States, his city, his state, and places he has visited in his bedroom.
Read stories from different countries. Then get out a map or globe and look for the spot where the story takes place. Another great time to do this is when you travel or when friends or relatives visit.
Learning Through Play
The most enriching games and activities are those that are not only engaging and fun, but also make the abstract concept of “diversity” real.
Play traditional games from other cultures. Search the Internet for ideas, or check out the book Play with Us: 100 Games from Around the World by Oriol Ripoll.
Hold your own world music festival. As a family, listen to a variety of musical genres; try gospel, salsa, reggae, flamenco, or Afro-Cuban. Chat about where each comes from and how the music connects to the culture and history.
Gather a box of international items for pretend play. Look for clothing, hats, fabric, dolls, masks, and props such as dishes or decorative items. Visit your local grocery store to find Spanish, African, Indian, or Asian product boxes.
Hands-on projects are another great way to explore different cultures. They can widen your child’s knowledge about the world and teach appreciation and tolerance as well as, yes, math, literacy, science, social studies, and geography!
Explore through the arts. Kids can learn about geometry through Japanese origami, the rhythm of poetry through el corrido (a type of Mexican ballad), or the traditions of Ukraine through pysanky (the wax-resist dyeing process for coloring Easter eggs). Check the Internet or your library for resources to get you started on these activities and many others.
Experiment with new foods. Cook or purchase dim sum, matzo balls, souvlaki, gnocchi, fajitas, or other unfamiliar dishes for dinner. Invite your child’s friends over for a meal, and involve your child in the excitement of the preparations.
By showing your child all the wonderful things different people around the world have to offer, you are helping her to grow into a loving, compassionate adult capable of changing the world for the better.
Adapted from Parent & Child's “Visit the World with Your Child” by Rebecca Barrera. Barrera is Scholastic’s Director of Hispanic Initiatives. With contributions from: Janet Gonzalez-Mena, Thomas Moore, Ph.D., Louise Derman-Sparks, and Dora Pulido-Tobiassen
Photo credits: David White; Wardrobe: Annie Nicholas; Hair/Makeup: Tonya Noland