We’ve all been there: you’re out in public with your young child and someone different — skin color, weight, disability, anything, really — and your child blurts out something innocent. Maybe it’s “Mom, did you see that guy in a chair with wheels?’ or “Dad, why is her skin a different color?”
Even though it’s said with complete innocence, it’s usually said in an above normal ‘toddler voice’ for all to hear, leaving you cringing and embarrassed. My ‘moment’ came when my daughter, then 3, met our babysitter for the first time. She asked her if she was going to have a baby. Our sitter said no, then my daughter asked ‘then why are you so fat?” It was an awkward moment. But it taught me I had some work to do about what it means to be different and what is and isn’t polite to say to people. From then on, I made it a point to talk to all three of my children about how we’re all different and the fact that we don’t all look and sound the same is a good thing.
Here are a few pointers for helping kids understand diversity:
- TV isn’t so bad (when it’s used to show people in other cultures). Unless you’re planning an extended vacation visiting several continents, TV is a great resource. This is one of the few times I turned to TV to help me parent, as opposed to the majority of the time I limited time in front of the screen. Sesame Street does a great job of showing how different we all are, as well as some videos. Take time to watch with your child and explain if they have any questions.
- Talk and teach. Start discussions with your child about how different things look. Don’t just limit the discussion to people. Talk about how different cars can be, houses and trees. Point out the differences and relate them back to how each thing is different but just as valuable and beautiful.
- Read and repeat. There are some great books that teach children diversity in people. People, written by Peter Spier, shows that all people have different cultures and backgrounds. There are some beautiful illustrations and even discussions about different foods. Try some new recipes or restaurants that show your child a different culture and use those experiences as ‘teachable moments’ to engage your child in discussions.
- Encourage questions. Remember that kids are naturally curious and inspire them to ask questions. Show them you’re curious, too. Explore, through books, shows or even travel, other cultures and open their minds to the beauty and diversity of our world.
People aren’t born with good manners. They learn them. Of course, we all know that manners are best learned in childhood, when little minds are like sponges and children are mimicking everything they see and hear in an adult world. What’s the best way teach manners? Let’s take a look.
First, we need to start with the history of manners and how society has changed the roles of adults and children throughout the centuries. In the Victorian Era, children were expected to act like ‘miniature adults.’ The mindset was children could work, dress, eat, sleep and converse just like adults. This is a direct opposition to how we feel about raising kids today, where the mantra is ‘let them be kids while they’re kids.’ For many parents, rules for kids just don’t apply. Manners today are more of a happy medium of these two philosophies. While we don’t expect – and shouldn’t – kids to be little adults, there is a rationale for teaching kids proper manners. Manners and politeness give kids confidence and build their self-esteem. Children naturally look to adults for praise and validation. Having an adult comment on your little one’s manners will not only make you proud, but make them feel good, too. Manners also help kids become more aware and sensitive to others. Holding doors open for adults, speaking politely and taking turns shows kids that other people’s feeling matter and their kindness can help put people at ease.
Where to start:
- Good habits start early. As soon as children learn to talk, they can be taught to say please and thank you. This is just simple repetitiveness. The more they hear the words, the more they will use them. Make sure they hear you say please and thank you to people you speak with daily – from family members to store clerks.
- No interrupting, please. Children don’t understand taking turns and when it’s their time to speak. Teaching this takes patience. When your child interrupts you, kindly tell them you are speaking and when you are finished you will speak with them. This could take a while so be patient. Most importantly, don’t ignore them. That only gives them the message that they’re not important and their needs and wants don’t matter enough to you.
- Excuse me? This goes hand in hand with interrupting. Make certain children understand excuse me, both in conversation and physically. If they’re walking by someone in a crowd, explain to them how to step aside to make room, especially for adults and elderly.
- Table manners. Table manners need to be introduced at an early age. Once your child is old enough to sit at the ‘big table’ with adults, begin to introduce them to small things they can manage, such as napkins on their lap, may I be excused from the table and clearing their own plate.
Remember, your children watch everything you do. When they see parents acting politely, they will follow!