As adults, our reactions to other people, families, cultures and traditions took root in our own early experiences and connections. The ability of children to effectively live in and contribute to a diverse world will depend on the positive personal experiences they have with others as they go through the different stages of development. These associations will counteract the prejudice and fearfulness that reside in our culture at large and help our children appreciate and seek diversity for its own sake.
Between the ages of 3 and 5, children become more aware of differences. As they develop gender and ethnic constancy, they learn by assimilating commonalities and stereotypes into their understanding of the world. At first, an emerging sense of self may make a young child fearful of differences and likely to overgeneralize. But if children associate on a regular basis with people from different backgrounds, their personal experiences become a more empathic basis for later beliefs and reactions. Diversity in the classroom, in the neighborhood and in opportunities to make friends, gives them a broader frame of reference and helps them see more clearly and intimately that the qualities of a good friend have nothing to do with race, class, ability or religion.
Five and 6 year olds can identify stereotypes and enjoy exploring different cultures, but their thinking can also be rigid as they explore “fair” and “unfair.” They learn to recognize differences and integrate values about differences at the same time. They recognize gender and racial constancy and they develop their own individual identities alongside an interest in the ethnicities and backgrounds of their friends. As early as age 9 or 10, attitudes have solidified. Without a life-changing experience, the feelings children have about diversity at this age are likely to stay with them for a very long time. Although they become better at taking the perspective of others, they continue to act on these attitudes and beliefs into adulthood. Knowing this makes our mission crucial.
If we’re unaware of our own biases, they will shape our children. Every shudder, changed topic or derogatory comment about another person reduces a child’s tolerance for others. And every action or conversation showing respect and appreciation for differences and individuality combats intolerance and diminishes bias and prejudice.
In educating our children, we begin with our own traditions. We teach them about our own practices and beliefs so they will understand and be inspired by the things we value. It’s important, however, to move beyond our comfort levels and act on two fronts, purposefully teaching children to notice the things that all traditions and people have in common and promoting the gifts inherent in diversity and difference. That’s how they will gain an appreciation for what others have to offer and an understanding of how similar we all are at heart. With that kind of education, our children will grow up to make progress toward the peace that is the overarching goal of all our parenting efforts.