Talking to your Child about Hatred and Prejudice

Explaining violent incidents
Hate is learned and can be "unlearned"
Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years
Talking to children about diversity: Onset of formal education
Hate hurts
Teaching children begins by taking a look at ourselves
An exercise for teaching diversity

Related ADL Articles:
Discussing Hate & Violence with Your Children
What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice
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Books for Teaching About Diversity

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Talking to children about diversity:
Preschool years

A child's age is one of the most important factors in considering how to begin a discussion on any subject dealing with prejudice, discrimination or, more simply, the things that make people different. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it is never too early, or too late, to talk to children about respecting diversity.

During preschool years, children begin to notice physical aspects of identity. At about age 2, children become increasingly aware of gender. This is followed by curiosity about skin color, hair color and texture, eye shape and color, and other physical attributes. Awareness of disabilities tends to come later; however, some toddlers begin noticing more obvious disabilities, such as a person using a wheelchair. Usually between the ages of 2 and 3, children will begin to notice cultural aspects of gender influence. For example, they may take note of the fact that girls tend to play with dolls while boys play with trucks. They may also begin to recognize ethnic differences, noticing that children eat different foods and celebrate different holidays or, conversely, do not celebrate or recognize certain holidays. As they begin to notice differences, 2-year olds may show signs of "pre-prejudice"-they may act afraid or uncomfortable. Not necessarily possessing the vocabulary to express their concerns, they may avoid or ignore a child they perceive to be different.

Three- and 4-year-olds begin to expand observations of differences and seek explanations for those differences. They show a greater awareness of their own and other's appearances. They ask questions about where they got their own skin, hair, and eye color, or why certain groups of people are called names that reflect colors other than what they are.

It is not unusual for them to ask questions such as, "Will I always be this color or will it change as I grow up? Why doesn't my best friend have the same color skin as me? Why does daddy have brown hair and I have black hair?"

Five-year-olds begin to build a group ethnic identity, as well as an individual identity. They can more fully explore the range of differences within and between racial and ethnic groups as well as the range of similarities between groups. They can now begin to understand scientific explanations for differences in skin color, hair texture, and eye shape. They accept the use of categories and seek to know where they themselves fit.

It is essential to keep these stages of development in mind when addressing issues of diversity with preschoolers. What is in a child's environment (as well as what is absent) provides children with important information about who and what is important. Therefore every effort should be made to create a setting that is rich in possibilities for exploring cultural diversity. Consider decorating their rooms with objects made from a variety of materials; if they are enrolled in a formal preschool program, work with the teacher to see that their classroom follows suit. Play music with words from different languages and try to introduce games from around the world. Try art projects that introduce various cultural traditions. Folk dancing and storytelling are two especially effective ways to introduce children to other cultures.

Creating an environment rich in possibilities for exploring diversity

  • Helps children develop their ideas about themselves and others
  • Creates the conditions under which children initiate conversations about differences
  • Provides adults with a setting for introducing activities about diversity.

When deciding which materials to include in a child's room or in a preschool classroom, do not inadvertently display pictures, books, or objects that reinforce stereotypes. Instead, show people within cultural groups enjoying a range of customs and activities, living in a variety of settings, and belonging to various socioeconomic groups as well as single-parent, two-parent, or extended family homes. In addition, it is important not to confuse images of past ways of life of a group with its contemporary life or confuse images of people's ceremonial or holiday life with their daily lives.

Next: Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years

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