Talking to children about diversity:
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
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
Next: Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years