Teaching About Differences

by Parenting Power


Diversity is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when creating a life-long curriculum for new baby. Reading, writing, crossing the road; these are the categories that seem obvious. It’s often not until our young child comments loudly about the colour of someone’s skin or that they seem different that we realize the need for such a process. It is a rare parent that hasn’t suddenly wished for the “Cone of Silence” to surround the observant child. And then what?!

That decision, as with all parenting decisions will vary from family to family. At Parenting Power when choosing what and how to teach, we like to start with a firm knowledge of the beliefs important to us. We ask, “What are the basic family values – those that we want our kids to live and as a result learn?” Of course, our children will choose and adopt the values which are important to them as they grow. But it is critical to remember that about 75% of what our young children learn from us, they do by watching our actions. What we model is what they do.
When it comes to teaching about differences, the following values come to mind:

1.    Respect

Respect for ourselves is intimately tied with respect for others. If we don’t expect respect (care and kindness) from our children and partners, we are not teaching our children how to respect others. In the same way, if we don’t show respect for other people, our children won’t know to expect it for themselves.

Respect for others includes acknowledging and valuing differences. Sometimes, in an effort to minimize the outbursts from our children, we play down differences. Every being on the planet is unique and by highlighting our diversity, we help our children to recognize and value their own differences along with those of the people around them.

In all likelihood, there will always be someone taller, shorter, smarter, less intelligent, faster, stronger, etc than each of us. These differences are always occurring to us and learning to accept them is part of discovering our own place in the world.

2.    Education

Where we live can have a huge impact on the amount of diversity that our children experience daily. Some communities are filled with people of different colour, shape and religion. Others seem less so. Prior to actually having children, we may have had ideals of exposing them to great diversity but in following the journey of our lives , we may have ended up far from those ideals.

Just because our own communities aren’t diverse doesn’t mean that we can’t teach our children about differences. Larger centers have multiple associations welcoming others to learn more. Technology can also increase our exposure to different cultural events and life situations. 

As a family, decide how often you would like to create awareness of other cultures, and differences around you. Involve your children in decisions about how this will happen: trying new foods, going to cultural celebrations, watching movies, studying the globe, etc.

3.    Tact

In writing this article, we checked with some of our children, “What does the word tact mean?” One six- year old said, “Kindness.”
The ten- year old replied, “Not saying bad things about people in front of them. You know, things that would hurt their feelings.”
So, tact is also about thinking before speaking. This is a valuable skill that all of us need to learn and is indeed more likely to come once our kids are developmentally aware of differing points of view. If our egocentric preschooler can’t conceive of another person having different feelings, how can they be expected to know how to think of what might hurt those feelings?

And that brings us to another important point. We have to have realistic expectations of our child’s ability to think before speaking. Knowing what is realistic can help us to keep our cool when strange things do leave a child’s mouth.  If a 3 year old suddenly blurts out – Mommy, that man only has one leg – rather than worrying about offending the man (who is probably aware that he is without the leg), we can take the opportunity to teach the youngster:

Yes – I can see that too. We are all different and this man seems to be handling his situation pretty well. 
When it comes to teaching about differences, it is the combination of these three things that can be helpful. If in our daily lives, we use respectful language to discuss differences, it is likely that individual differences might not seem so strange. Lastly, as our children develop an awareness of other people’s points of view, we can introduce a need for thinking before we speak and of choosing words that help others rather than words that hurt. In this way, our children will learn the tact to see differences with their eyes and to ask questions about those differences at a time that won’t be hurtful. Hopefully, they will also learn to appreciate the differences that make up our world – those in others and in themselves.

There is so much to teach our children. The great thing – they can teach us even more!


From Julie Freedman Smith & Gail Bell, Parenting Power