Teaching Kids About Diversity
by Amy Scholten, MPH
“ Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day.” Anonymous
To ensure your children’s potential for success in a rapidly changing world, you need to prepare them to live and work harmoniously and productively alongside people from all walks of life. This involves learning to respect and relate to people with different personalities; abilities; and cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Respect for diversity begins at home, but as a parent, where do you begin?
Understanding Prejudice and Its Consequences
Prejudice means to pre-judge, or to form a negative judgment or opinion about a person or group without knowledge of that person or group, or examination of the facts. Most people hold prejudices, and most people have, at some time or another, been victimized by prejudice. Prejudices often form in response to individual or group characteristics including, but not limited to:
Prejudice often leads to discrimination, exclusion, defamation, vandalism, and violence in the form of hate crimes. Victims of prejudice may suffer socially, economically, emotionally, and physically, especially when exposed to repeat, overt, and violent expressions of prejudice.
According to the American Psychological Association, hate crimes, which occur in response to prejudice, often leave victims with intense feelings of vulnerability, anger, depression, physical ailments, learning problems, and difficult interpersonal relations. A hate crime may also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
What Can You Do?
Despite your best efforts at modeling tolerance, your children are influenced by what the people around them think and do. They are exposed to people who may not respect differences. They notice that some people won’t associate with certain groups or children. Your children may also be influenced by the way various groups are depicted in books, on television, in movies, and in the lyrics of songs. The Anti-Defamation League offers the following tips on teaching your children respect for diversity:
Recognize and appreciate the special qualities and uniqueness of your children.
Show your children that you appreciate their uniqueness, as well as the uniqueness of others. Point out their special qualities and praise them often. Children who feel good about themselves as unique individuals are less likely to be prejudiced.
Don’t be afraid to talk about differences.
Children notice differences at a very young age. They will ask questions about differences that they notice in another person. This awareness does not lead to negative attitudes and prejudice. Children learn prejudices from adults, peers, the media, books, and other sources. Talk to your children about differences in a positive, nonjudgmental manner. For example, if your young child notices that another child has a different skin color, you could talk about the fact that there are many different skin colors, and that each color and each person is special and wonderful.
Help your children to be sensitive to others' feelings.
Children who are more empathic and caring are less likely to be prejudiced. Provide your children with stories and books that can help them understand that there are different points of view. When they have a conflict with someone, help them to think about how the other person may be feeling. Let them know that name-calling can hurt other people.
Provide your children with opportunities to learn about diversity.
Children can develop positive attitudes toward diverse types of people by working together with them on common goals. Encourage them to take part in sports, school clubs, and community groups where they are exposed to different types of people. You can also help them learn about diverse groups through books, movies, TV programs, games, dolls, art, music, holidays, traditions, and programs that provide a positive look at different cultures.
Help your children recognize prejudice and discrimination when they occur.
Teach your children how to recognize and respond to prejudicial attitudes and discrimination. School and playground situations, as well as television, movies, song lyrics, books, and newspapers may provide opportunities for discussion.
Actively work to help your children make viewing/listening/reading choices that respect diversity. At least help them to process sources that may run counter to being respectful of diversity. For example, some classics use what is now considered racist language. Process this information with children and contrast historical context with current awareness of the importance of diversity.
Encourage your children to develop critical thinking skills. Challenge their prejudices. Ask them how they define “normal” and why they shouldn’t like someone who is different in some way.
Explain what prejudice is and why it is unfair.
Your children should know that no one deserves to be excluded or teased because of race, religion, cultural background, disability, appearance, sexual orientation, or other differences. Help them to understand what it might feel like to be different, and how it would feel if someone teased or hurt them because of that difference.
Take action against prejudice and discrimination.
If adults use bigoted language around your children, say something such as “Please don’t talk that way around my children.” Your children need to know that such behavior is not acceptable. Support your children when they are victims of prejudice. Don’t minimize their experiences. Help them develop a set of responses for others who call them names. Remember that you teach best by setting a good example.
Tolerance—Southern Poverty Law Center
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Department of Justice Canada
Ten ways to fight hate. Southern Poverty Law Center website. Available at: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/d6_legacy_files/downloads/publication/Ten_Ways_2010.pdf. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Understanding and preventing hate crimes. American Psychological Association website. Available at:
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Accessed June 30, 2017.
Talking to young children about bias and prejudice. Anti-Defamation League website. Available at: https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/talking-to-young-children-about-prejudice. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Last reviewed June 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 6/30/2017
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