You're standing in the supermarket check-out line with your 3-year old when he suddenly points to another little boy sitting in a shopping cart and asks in a loud voice, “Mommy. Why is that boy's skin brown? As heads turn, you become embarrassed. You worry, “What kind of parent do they think I am?” or, “How should I answer?” What's even more disturbing, perhaps, is the nature of your child's query, and you wonder, “Why is he asking such a thing? Is he prejudiced already?”
What I tell parents, when they ask me about situations like this, is that preschoolers aren't making value judgments with such comments. They may notice differences in appearance, but they're generally innocent of stereotypes held by adults. Instead, it's their natural curiousity about the world and their desire to define themselves as individuals, that's at the root of young children's questions about skin color and other differences.
Your child's tender age shouldn't stop you from teaching him some positive values about tolerance, however. In fact, this is an ideal time-when your preschooler is first learning how people should behave with each other and can absorb your values- to help him see that the world is a much richer place because of it's diversity.
Without your active and early involvement, your child can go beyond imitative behavior to actually believing the prejudices and stereotypes of the people in his environment and in the media. Here's how to start.
Set a good example. Kids learn from observing your interactions with others. If you're respectful to all people, your children will follow suit. It's important to confront any of your own stereotypical thoughts head on, then work hard to change them by monitoring your everyday thoughts, speech and actions.
Respond to negative remarks. If a close family member or a neighbor tells an ethnic joke or makes a racial slur in front of your child, confront the issue immediately. For example, you might tell the person, “When you talk like that it makes me uncomfortable, or “Please don't use that word again.”As your child observes you taking a stand, he'll learn to use phrases like these and start to speak out against prejudice. If you say nothing, your child might think you agree with the joke or slur.
Expose your child to different cultures. The friendships your child has, can have a lasting effect. Consider enrolling your youngster in a school or child-care program with kids from lots of different cultures. Fun to read books that happen to feature multiracial characters are another way to help your child see the world in all it's glorious colors. There are many good books that do a good job of explaining prejudice such as, “We're different We're the same”, by Bobbie Jane Kates. You can even plan family outings to festivals and museums that celebrate and teach about different cultures.
Bring the message home. When your child makes an insensitive remark, remind him of how he feels when he isn't treated well by his friends and ask him “How do you think that boy felt when none of the kids would play with him because he couldn't speak English. When he is a little older you can explain intolerance in this way: “Sometimes people are afraid of someone who is different. They act mean to this person because they feel uncomfortable, which is wrong. What they should do, is try to get to know that person better.”
Treat your youngster with respect. If your youngster feels good about herself and isconfident about her place in the world, she will be less likely to be fearful of people who are different from her. A child who feels secure in your love and has a positive self-imagewill have no need to put someone else down to feel valuable or powerful.
If you take these steps, you will help create a better world for generations to come.