How Parents Can Talk to Kids About Being Different
Our history books teach us America is the “melting pot” to the world. Our diversity, as a nation, is one of the hallmarks of the American experiment. Yet, we, as a nation, face many challenges as we navigate how we choose to treat others who do not fit the status quo.
Being different means being unique and seeing the world through our own special lens. Often being different is scary because of how others view us. Threats can be very real, leading to discrimination, name calling, bullying, and, unfortunately for some, violence.
As a Clinical Psychologist, I have had the privilege of working with clients who strove to overcome intellectual, emotional, and physical differences. They often commented that the world around them treated them like they were invisible. We are essentially all different, yet we find ourselves navigating a world that chooses not to see us or to focus only on our visible differences.
For parents, having discussions with their children about what it means to be different is crucial. We need to help our children learn how we are different and how we are the same, as human beings. These talks can establish an atmosphere of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion of others while also helping children accept and celebrate who they are themselves. These conversations can be difficult for some parents, and starting them can feel awkward.
Here are some suggestions to help parents start conversations about being different:
First, as a parent, take a close look at your own attitude and fears toward people who are different. What does being different mean to you? The color of one’s skin, a person’s culture or religious beliefs? A person’s family heritage? A person’s intelligence or physical ability? A person’s gender or sexual preference? These are challenging questions. Children take the lead from their parents about difficult topics. Being honest with yourself allows you to be open to your child’s questions and natural inquisitiveness.
Find a teaching moment where you and your children experience someone being different. Talk with your children about it. Ask them about how that person is different, and start a dialogue about what it means to be different.
Allow your children to talk. Listen to their concerns or fears. It is okay to be nervous as parents about what comes up. You do not have to feel that you have all the answers or be perfect yourself.
Do research on your own and with your children to explore the value of differences in people.
Accept that your children may say things that are discriminatory. Use these teaching moments to talk about inclusion by exploring with your children why they said what they said and where they may have heard or learned such statements.
Teach them about not labeling others and talk about your children’s own experiences when they have been labeled by someone.
Teach respect for others and talk about how we are, in many ways, alike as people.
Encourage understanding and teach the importance of not looking at others as “them” and you and your family as “us.”
Monitor your children’s social media for potentially cruel and judgmental characterizations of people who are different.
Look for media moments from which your children can experience and learn about people who are different, and talk about it. Listen to your children and encourage discussions.
Try not to let these discussions become too heavy and overwhelming. Learning about differences is a lifetime journey. And most importantly, model for your children the behavior and language you want them to use. Doing so can help your children build bridges between people instead of distancing them out of ignorance, fear, or hatred.