We are different - We are the same!

Celebrate unique attributes through everyday interactions and activities.

Have you ever heard children say, “Mommy, my new friend Shelby doesn’t have a daddy,” “Joey’s lunch looks weird,” “Wow, that lady is really fat” or “That guy walks funny?” The old television show, Kids Say the Darndest Things! with Art Linkletter, probably said it best.  It is not unusual to hear a child comment on differences they observe at the most inopportune time. Parents and caregivers are often caught off guard not knowing exactly how to respond.  A first response of many adults is instruct the child to be quiet or to correct the child by letting them know that this kind of comment is not acceptable.  Responding in that manner, however, can give the child the message that these comments should only be made in private.

When a child in your life makes a similar comment to these, which you can be assured they will, or a frank observation, Michigan State University Extension recommends seizing the opportunity to teach about differences and diversity between people and families.  It is important to acknowledge that the child has noticed a difference and then discuss and generalize the things that are the same about people across the world.

As young as infancy, parents and caregivers can begin the foundation of teaching children about “what is me” and “what is not me.”  Parents teach these concepts quite naturally through nursery games like “this little piggy” and “where are your eyes, ears and mouth.”

Children usually become aware of family composition, ethnicity, gender, race and some disabilities during the preschool period, between ages two and five.  The behavior and feeling of the adults in a childs life will often determine how they will form their ideas and responses. They can easily tell how you feel about people who are different from you and will mimic your behavior.  Children begin to learn their colors at this time and will relate the names of colors to skin color.  They are naturally curious, will begin to ask questions and make observations about skin color in the preschool years. 

Talk with children about eye color and shape, hair color and texture, and skin tone.  Use an ink pad and paper to make a thumb print of you and your child’s thumb.  Show them through a magnifying glass how, although they look similar, they are really quite different.  Recognize people with obvious disabilities and discuss them with your child.  Emphasize that different is not wrong. Explore recipes, traditions and holidays different from your own.  Read about far-away places and people together.  Show your child a map and talk about how some people say words differently than you do.  Teach your child that, just as there are people who have different colored skin and speak a different language, there are also those who eat differently and live in homes that are very different from yours.  Families can be different too.  Discuss how some families are very small, just a child and their mother, and some are very large.  Some families have more than one parent, while some have grandparents, or others who parent children.

Answer questions from your child with facts and honesty.  Take the time to challenge thinking that may be somewhat distorted.  According to The National Network for Child Care fact sheet, Helping Children Deal With Differences, parents should:

  • Respond promptly
  • Give simple answers
  • Use the right words
  • Model respectful behavior, both verbally and nonverbally
  • Acknowledge children’s fears
  • Introduce difference through books

Use the questions that children ask as opportunities to acknowledge that people are different and are the same in many ways.  Incorporate children’s books that show diversity into your regular story time and talk about what you see.  Staff at your local library can recommend books that are age appropriate for your child.  A list of 50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know divides books about race and culture into age recommendations. 

Young children are comforted by the familiar.  Help them notice how they share similar traits with family members and their friends; particularly children who are a different gender or have different physical characteristics.  Focus on internal qualities such as likes and dislikes.  “I noticed that you and Talisha both prefer to play in the art center during free time.” Teach children that every person is unique and that is what makes each and every one of us special.  Look for additional information on early childhood development from MSU Extension.

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