How do you talk to your kid about differences?

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My daughter is blessed to have many different people from many different belief systems and walks of life around her. She is growing up with offbeat parents who have a strong judgement-free life policy. However, we can not expose her to every possible difference in humans (we simply do not know enough people!).

So I'm wondering how other people have explained differences (whether it is skin color, religious beliefs, mental or physical disabilities, etc.) to their children when their children had not been around those differences and therefore find them different or outside her realm of familiarity? -Shelly G.

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  1. Books that celebrate difference are helpful. Todd Parr has a great series of books that includes Its ok to be Different. Social groups and cultural events that celebrate difference. Visual art exhibits, music events, language groups for youngsters, etc. There are LGBTQ and allied community groups and centers that have social events for parents and kids in many cities. I was watching a kids movie with my daughter the other day and her uncle came in and sat down with us. There was a character in the movie, a turtle that was in a wheel chair and her uncle said something very disturbing. " Is that a turtle? Look at the turtle. What is wrong with the turtle? Something is wrong with the turtle.". It really horrified me that he was trying to equate being in a wheel chair with something "wrong" with the character. I corrected him aloud saying "there is nothing wrong with the turtle. the turtle gets around in a wheelchair. that is different from how you get around. but different is ok. Remember our book?"

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    • I really love this suggestion! I will say (and I'm speaking as a mother of a child who has two conditions he has to deal with, one of which is obvious to other kids) that this is the kind of conversation you have to have with your kids over and over again. In my experience, children who understand what's going on one time may not the next, and they have to be reminded when they encounter something that's outside their norm — which is why reading a book like this semi-regularly is awesome.

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    • I love Todd Parr's books! He also has great ones about different emotions which open up talking about feelings with young children that can be difficult to get into otherwise.

    • thanks for the book suggestion – i'm always on the lookout for things like this, because my son is growing up with two mummies, and there are very few books that represent different kinds of families and celebrate difference.

  2. I talk about things at the dinner table that I have read on the internet. For instance, I would say, "Hey I read this article about talking about differences between people, like if someones has different religious beliefs or if someone has physical disabilities. If you had never seen someone with a ________________, what would you think? Would you have questions? Would you feel comfortable asking them or not? What do you think?"

    OR

    "I read an article on same sex marriage today. Have you heard anyone talk about that before? What did they say? Do you agree? What do you think?"

    I think that these conversations are pretty easy once kids get to school age. Before then, I usually just wait until something happens to bring it to the child's attention.

    I still remember the first time my middle son heard about same sex marriage. I was talking to my husband at dinner and mentioned 'his husband' in talking about something I'd read and my son pipped up and say 'HIS husband? what?'. I just responded, 'Yep, his husband, guys and be together just like girls can in relationships.' He processed it for a moment and then say, "Oh, ok". I think he was 7 or so. At least he was starting to pay attention to our conversations now.

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  3. This post is interesting to me because I was raised to accept every difference without actually meeting almost anyone! My parents moved to tiny town before I was born, so everyone seemed pretty similar, at least on the surface. But at our house there movies, records (I'm old), books, and stories about all kinds of people. My parents never commented on difference except when they thought someone was being treated unfairly because of it–I don't think they were conscious of it otherwise, so they raised me not to be. Interesting people were interesting on their own merits–what visible or invisible differences they had from me were pretty irrelevant.

    In short, you don't need to introduce your wee ones to every possible difference–just teach them to be open and interested and tolerant no matter who they meet.

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  4. I try to be pretty matter of fact about it, and my daughter is still young so we haven't gotten into anything complicated. "Amy," used to be grandma's girlfriend. Yep. Why is that lady in a wheel chair? She uses it to help her get around, some people need a little extra help and the wheel chair helps her get where she needs to go. I think it's important to be honest that there are differences, not ignore them, as they are real and can have pretty strong impacts on people's lives. Acknowledging differences is not the same as judging people, being careful in your language is important here.
    Pretending that you don't see such and such (color, disability, etc) devalues a person's experience and existence. I think it's important to talk about privilege as well, although this is something that you get into over time. Such as, I'm white, straight, cis, American-born, english as first language etc etc, and how society treats me as the norm, and how that's not really okay. Being aware of differences, and being aware of how society treats differences, is important in the long run.

    Another thing I will do- if a difference of some kind comes up in conversation and you don't know how to talk about it- use the internet to find what those people have to say about it. There are a lot of resources out there, and going by what for example a blind person says about being blind is a lot better than just making it up. Don't expect a person to be your teacher in real life, educate yourself and your kid. It can only help you, your kid, and society.

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    • I think that's where my perceived problem lies – we are not all created equal, everyone has different strengths an weaknesses. But we're supposed to treat everyone equal, and I don't feel it's right to ignore differences. So the conundrum lies in saying "we're all different but should be treated the same and good luck figuring that one out!"

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      • One thing I've used as a teacher when kids bring up differences, specifically learning differences, but not necessarily, is an analogy: "What if I gave everyone in the class a candy bar, but I put it high on a shelf? So-and-so is taller than such-and-such, right? So would it be fair to let such-and-such stand on a stool to reach her candy bar? Of course. It's the same with using a wheelchair/being in speech therapy/needing to take breaks from class/whatever. Our friend uses that to ____, just like using a stool to reach a candy bar."
        Kids often understand an analogy to eyeglasses, too, since they are common.

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      • I'm of the philosophy of we are all different, those are the things that make us awesome and our journey in life unique and challenging. Those are the things that we celebrate.

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      • My partner has a saying he likes, "Fairness is based on need." It goes along with the idea that we are all created equal, but that means treating someone with dignity, not necessarily the same. That it's not fair to give everyone a candy bar on a high shelf because someone might be short and someone might be diabetic! So giving the diabetic kid a different treat (cheese stick?) is more fair and equal than just giving them the candy bar. OTOH, sometimes people don't like to be singled out. In which case, would it really hurt anyone if that treat was cheese sticks for everyone?

        Of course, with more complicated topics like tax law, the answers become more complicated. But even that concept is very simple to explain: With more variables, there are more opportunities to hurt people (discriminate) and also to be fair (everyone gets a different treat, or maybe the treat isn't food-based now because food allergies made it too complicated). Those kinds of decisions are simple when it's two kids, more complicated when it's 30 kids, and a LOT more complicated when we consider the population of an entire state.

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        • Just FYI, I would never actually give a class of kids a candy bar! Just a motivating example that kids understand is all. Same sentiment, though, equal isn't the same as fair- different people need different things.

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      • i think the idea is that we're all different, and some of us have different needs, but we all have the same value as human beings.
        that way important differences an be acknowledged and celebrated without ascribing more importance or value to anyone over anyone else.

    • I agree. We make no big deal about it. If Vop asks a "Why?" question, we try to normalize it as much as possible. Luckily we live in Papua New Guinea, where biracial families are more common than not (well, amongst the expat community, anyway!)so the issue of skin color isn't that big a deal.If she asks the "Why is that person in a wheelchair?" question, we answer exactly like you do. We're currently dealing with issues of religion (we're atheists) and that's a bit more complex. We've tried likening gods to cartoon characters "Angelina Ballerina isn't real. You know mice can't dance,but it's fun to make believe", or "It's just a story that some people believe in". We tend to gloss over the harder bits, as she's only 4 and there will be plenty of time for her to figure it all out. We try to be age-appropriate as much as we can.

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  5. I think it's really important to make sure you don't always fall back on a particular little phrase like "everyone is equal," OR "everyone is different, and that is ok" instead of teaching and discussing the value itself when the chance comes up. Equality and difference are complicated, and just because a kid can parrot a value doesn't mean they understand how to use it. I think those kinds of phrases can be helpful as shorthand, but you have to make sure the kids know what the shorthand is for, and be able to critically think about those ideas.

    Relatedly, although I'm sure it's less of an issue for the offbeat people around here, I also think it's essential to take stock of and think about the ways that you behave about difference. If you are a caucasian, typically-abled family, and you say "it's ok for people to be different" and then you cross to the other side of the street to avoid the homeless man in the wheelchair or tell your kids to make sure to stay close to you because you are in a "bad" or "unsafe" part of town which happens to be populated primarily with black people, they'll probably be confused – even/especially if you also make sure to discuss difference with your kids when it's more convenient, when you meet a friendly person in a wheelchair in the grocery store or a black friend comes to visit.

    I know that I grew up in an immediate family and social circle without visible disabilities, in a very white part of the country, and although my parents tried to raise us to be nonjudgmental, they still had their own unexamined prejudices and I grew up with a strong sense that minorities and those with disabilities were very "other." I wish they would have talked more to my siblings and me in those inconvenient and complex situations when we were young.

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  6. I'm a PreK teacher, and there's a lesson I like to use a lot to talk about physical differences. Take a brown egg and a white egg (or a red apple and a green apple) and talk about the physical differences. Then, break (or cut) it open to see if there are any differences on the inside. Obviously, there won't be- which is a really good lesson to young children. Talk about how even of we may look completely different on the outside, we're all the same on the inside (we all feel the same emotions, etc.). It's a very tangible way to see that, even though the lesson is anything but.

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    • Also, I NEVER let my students describe someone else by the way they look. Let's face it- plenty of people have attributes that they don't like people pointing out all of the time. The only time I've ever been okay with it is when I had a school secretary who would describe me as the "tall, thin, pretty teacher", haha.

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      • My mom got pretty mad at me in preschool because I WOULD NOT use gender or skin color to describe someone. "A kid in my class," for example. She'd ask me to describe them, what do they look like, and I would say "They have glasses, curly hair, and like trucks." (I'm also reasonably sure I probably said "and was wearing a red tshirt" as if that tells anyone anything when they weren't there.) My mom didn't know my best friend from school was in a wheelchair for months, and then only because I was talking about decorating it.

        I'm sure I had been exposed to some genderqueer folks by then, but my dad swears it was never discussed with or around me. Just somehow I internalized the idea that gender and race were not things we discussed lightly. Strange considering that discussion of someone's race when totally not relevant was common with both sides of my family.

        There is no lesson or moral here, just sharing an experience. I with there was a lesson or moral, though. I'm still just as screwed up as many others: I still struggled with a friend who changed gender pronouns, and drove an extra 5 miles to the next gas station when I was on Empty because the one I passed by had a group of men with visible guns in their waistbands and was in a high-crime area of town. I'd like to believe I passed by solely because of the stupidity of carrying your gun in your waistband, but I can't discount the idea that the color of their skin didn't somehow affect the decision to risk running out of gas rather than stop. But I'm privileged enough to be aware of that action and question my thought process. So I guess that's something.

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  7. Exposing them to any difference is a start and opens the gates to new ways of thinking and general tolerance. I have not met even half of the different people out there, and hear of new ones every day. But I learned to be curious about others.

    Anecdotal advice: my mom talked about people in terms of their talent and then mentioned the difference they had
    " I remember my aunt Betty grew the prettiest flowers, and she only had one arm, so she cut the stems with scissors like this" (demonstrates one handed cutting) appreciation and sensitivity all in one

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  8. Kids tend to be pretty sensitive to nuance and reflect adults a lot, so so I try to avoid the negative or neutral language ("ok", "not bad", "there's nothing wrong with that") because, unfortunately, what sticks with people sometimes are only the negative words ("bad", "wrong", etc.).

    I don't think trying to negate a negative is as good as projecting a positive. Therefore, I try to always project the attitude that new & different is AWESOME! 😀

    Sure, we could just have vanilla or chocolate ice cream, which I love, but isn't it really cool that we have an almost endless variety of flavors to try? Roughly speaking, I try to take that philosophy & apply it to everything.

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  9. Books, books, books! I'll list my favorite ones that teach tolerance below**. But as a teacher and auntie, I also try to make sure to more frequently read books that include minority characters in the story without basing the story around the idea of tolerance because it's important for kids to see minority children as just as empowered as they are, not the constant victims of intolerance. Readers both young and adult have always learned by hearing stories that explore the familiar (universals like birthdays, being sick, dealing with family) and introduce the foreign (adventures set a long time ago in a land far, far away). The key to not just tolerance but acceptance of difference is merging something they've never seen before (a kid of a different body type, ethnicity, gender identity, etc.) into a context that is familiar. Living in an all-white neighborhood, I grew up on "Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp" by Mercer Mayer, "Sense Pass King" by Trina Schart Hyman, and books by Ezra Jack Keats, all of which have black children as the protagonist. When I was 12, I received Addy the American Girl doll, a black American character whose story takes place during the Civil War. A relative asked, "Why would you give a white girl a black doll?" No matter the minority in question, the answer to that should always, always be, "Why not?"

    **"People" by Peter Spier is great for cultural/ethnic diversity as well as community-building ideas. "King & King" by Linda deHaan presents the typical prince-searches-princess story but then introduces same-sex marriage as the key to the prince's happiness. "I Have A Sister, My Sister is Deaf" by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson is a classic. Unfortunately, "Thinking Big" by Susan Kuklin is hard to get, but it's the best book about dwarfism for kids I've ever seen. (I used it all the time in school to explain to the rest of the class why I was so much shorter than all of them.) For kids ready to read chapter books, the American Girl history series insists by example that the American experience is as diverse as it is accessible, and I dream of a day when boys read them as often as girls do. "The Boy in the Dress" should be read by pre-teen boys and girls of all gender identities so that cis, gender-conforming children learn to never, ever make fun of their classmates who demonstrate any kind of trans behavior.

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  10. I grew up in a small, almost entirely white, town. I probably met 10 black people throughout my entire childhood. But I always had black baby dolls (dolls were my thing) and my parents always treated them like all my other babies. I remember other adults making comments about them and feeling the need to defend them. One time a neighbor laughed nastily and asked "where did you get THAT one?". I felt that she was implying the father must be black, which made me think about sex and completely freaked me out. I believe my response was to glare at her and leave the room. I spent years wishing I had said more, and I think the experience taught me to speak up in future situations.

    I think intolerance, Intentional or not, is a sucky thing that all our kids have to be exposed to and fight against. If they learn to do that maybe their kids won't have to fight as much.

  11. I think one of the best things me and my husband did was take my step daughters who were 9 and 5 at the time to the Gay Pride festival that they had here last year. The girls were excited that there was a parade, games, snow cones, etc, and it made them think. There was a lot of "Why are those two girls holding hands?" and "Why is that boy dressed like a girl?" and we very basically told them. I try to make sure that my step kids get small exposures to things like this.

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