I want my kids to be the kind of people who value diversity, but our homeschool community is pretty homogenous. How do I raise open-minded global citizens when our opportunities to experience other cultures are limited?
This is something I worry about, too. Our homeschool community is vibrant, engaging, and full of creative, curious kids with diverse interests and talents—but it’s a very white, middle class community. And I worry: How will my kids be responsible citizens in an increasingly global and diverse world if they don’t have opportunities to spend time with a diverse group of people?
Here’s the good news: It turns out that just by talking about issues of race and difference with our kids, we’re improving their diversity IQ. This goes contrary to what a lot of parents think: By talking about differences and racism to our children, aren’t we really just teaching them to notice differences that they’d be oblivious to otherwise? In fact, no: Kids as young as three years old start to form ideas about race and act on them—not because children are natural-born racists but because they experience the world through cataloging and comparing the people and things around them. “Don’t you want to suggest to them—early on, before they do form these preconceptions—something positive [about differences between people] rather than let them pick up something negative?” asks Kristina Olson, a psychologist who studies racial bias and social cognitive development.
So talking about race and difference is important, and if your community doesn’t lend itself to natural segues into those conversations, you can turn to books and television to bring up the topic. Ask your librarian to help you find books that have been nominated for the Coretta Scott King Book Award (for books by an African-American author and illustrator), the Schneider Family Book Award (for excellence in writing about the disability experience), the Pura Belpré Award (awarded to a Latino illustrator), the Stonewall Award (for excellence in children’s and young adult LGBTQ literature), the American Indian Youth Literature Awards, and the Asian Pacific Awards, all of which seek out works by authors and illustrators that highlight diversity. But don’t stop there: Also talk to your kids about where you don’t find multiculturalism in books and television. Why aren’t there any black Santa Clauses? Why do people assume a character like Rue in The Hunger Games or Hermione in the the Harry Potter series is white—and get so upset when it turns out that she may not be? You can use these conversations as a starting point to talk about diversity in your real-life community: Why do you think we seem to see people who look the same everywhere we go?
It’s possible that in the course of your conversations, your kids will say some insensitive things. That’s great because it gives you the opportunity to talk about the thinking behind the insensitivity, says Howard Stevenson, professor of education and Africana studies and author of Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference. Don’t admonish your child for saying something that’s off-base—instead, respect your child’s curiosity and help him explore the ideas that led him into narrower-minded thinking.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to teach children that diversity is a value. Your children probably aren’t going to be blind to the fact that other people look different, talk differently, and have different abilities—so instead of teaching them to ignore differences, encourage them to embrace them as good things and to look for commonalities with people who seem superficially difference. Reading a book about a first-generation Chinese boy, look for what you might have in common with the protagonist—an obsession with baseball or a bossy mother—as well as differences. The more similarities young kids see between themselves and children of other races, the more they may embrace them, says Stevenson.
Of course, there’s no substitute for first-hand experience with diverse people, so look for opportunities to explore different cultures. This can be as simple as loading up the car to check out festivals, restaurants, and cultural events near you, or as involved as planning immersion getaways to places that are totally different from your hometown or sponsoring a foreign exchange student. Ideally, you’ll guide your kids by being excited to explore and discover diversity, whatever your community, and following your lead, they’ll grow up to value and seek out diversity, too.
This was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of HSL.