As a former early childhood teacher and parenting educator, I’ve heard countless conversations between children and the important adults in their lives that have given me a window into their unique life experiences.
The families I work with all have something in common — they love their children and want the best for them. Most families have conversations about their hopes and dreams, family values, and how much they love their children. But I also noticed that there were differences in conversations too, especially surrounding the characteristics that make children unique.
I’ll never forget Sofia, who asked her mom, “Can two people be friends if they have different eye colors?”. Children noticed qualities that make themselves and others different – sometimes they felt proud to talk about these qualities (“I’m the only one in my class school who knows how to speak Spanish!”), but sometimes their unique qualities left them wondering how they fit in (“Why does everyone else have a mom and a dad?”).
The questions children asked and the conversations that followed stuck with me and shape my work with families, as well as the way I parent. Over the years, I’ve gathered strategies to help all children learn to love what makes them different. Here are some of my favorites for you to try at home:
Celebrate What Makes Us Unique
● Have conversations with your child about who they are: Talk openly about what they have in common with family members and friends, as well as the characteristics that make them one-of-a-kind. You can also learn to appreciate diversity through play.
● Draw self-portraits: Look in the mirror as you draw with crayons or colored pencils. Talk about the different colors you see and try to match your unique skin, hair, and eye color in your artwork. You can also have your child draw a picture of your family.
● Conduct family surveys: Help your child think of questions to ask family members as a way to start conversations about similarities and differences, such as their favorite food or season, and write each person’s response. It’s fun to see that even people who love each other have some things in common and some things that are different!
Share Family Stories and Traditions
● Create a “My Family Traditions” book: Tell your child stories about the traditions that were important to your family when you were growing up. Which of these traditions are important in your family now? Do you have any new traditions? Write them down.
● Seek out ways to learn about other families and cultures: Read stories, ask friends about their favorite traditions, and participate in community events. Let your child know that these traditions are just as important to other families as yours are to you.
Teach Your Child the Importance of Empathy
● Brainstorm what to say or do if you see someone being mistreated: Talk with your child about the fact that people sometimes treat others poorly because they seem different. Putting on a folktale play can help your child feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
● Focus on feelings: Talking about the feelings others have can help build understanding and empathy. Ask your child questions like, “How do you think they are feeling?” Thinking about how another person’s experience can help your child build a connection around something they have in common while also appreciating what makes them different.
Show Your Child Diverse Role Models
● Make sure your child has role models: All children need role models they can relate to, especially ones who look or dress like them, share their abilities and challenges, love like they do, and have families that look like theirs. For example, Pinkalicious’s character from Pinkalicious & Peterrific is a great role model of someone who pushes back against “girly” stereotypes of who can love the color pink. Role models such as Pinkalicious can help your child feel comfortable and confident being who they are as they develop their own identity. Having role models who are different from your child also helps them learn to see everyone as part of the same community. Learn how you can be a role model to your growing child too!
We can make having those tough conversations about what makes us different easier by teaching our children empathy, understanding, and kindness. Next time a child asks, “Why am I different?” your child might be the one to speak up and let them know they are special. Together, we can help all of our children learn to love and celebrate the differences that make them unique.