Differences are why life is exciting. We have the opportunity to be positive and make life more robust by celebrating those differences.Julie Kim, MD, PhD
Children naturally notice differences, including gender, skin color, size and how people move. Medical professionals believed that children were three or four before they identified these differences, but research now shows they notice them as early as six-to-nine months of age.
“We are biologically programmed to be more comfortable with familiarity,” explains Nina Sand-Loud, MD, developmental behavioral pediatrician, Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry, at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD). “That’s why early exposure to different races and religions—and individuals with other developmental abilities—is important.”
Children recognize differences as part of natural curiosity, not from a place of judgment or negativity. While parents inherently tend to shield children, it won’t help them long-term if issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are ignored. It’s essential to address children’s natural curiosity and questions to help them learn, and to engage in regular conversations about diversity and practice inclusivity at home.
Celebrate diversity and keep talking
Dr. Sand-Loud Recommends these Children’s Books to Help Start Discussions
- The Sneeches by Dr. Seuss - In this story the star-belly and plain-belly Sneeches learn that neither type is superior and that they are able to get along and become friends.
- The Color of Us by Karen Katz - This story explores how everyone in the neighborhood is a different shade of brown—from peanut butter to chocolate—and subtly explaining that people are all different shades of the same color.
- Why Am I Different by Norma Simon - This book outlines the ways people can be different from each other including hair color, size, language and family.
- It’s OK to be Different by Todd Parr - The author explores issues such as adoption and unusual things such as eating macaroni in the bathtub, but manages to explore diversity in all forms.
Here are some other books you might find helpful.
Julie Kim, MD, PhD, section chief, Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, DHMC, shares that she recognized she was Asian, not white, in the first grade. “We need to help children identify differences and then celebrate them,” she recommends. “It’s time to be pretty direct. Differences are why life is exciting. We have the opportunity to be positive and make life more robust by celebrating those differences.”
Sand-Loud agrees, encouraging parents to frame differences in a positive way (because they are), such as explaining how we love different colors of flowers and various types of food. “If a child notices someone with a prosthesis, tell your child that that person is strong in different ways,” Kim adds.
Framing differences in terms of fairness works well with children. They understand the concept of fairness early on and carries across developmental stages. Older children can handle more details about different groups of people who have been treated unfairly, and how it has led to fewer opportunities for them. Helping your child navigate the news and misinformation on the internet is also an important step.
To gain a basic understanding of what inclusivity means, explain to your child what equity, diversity, ability, religion, ethnicity and race mean. Once they are familiar with those concepts, you can build on meanings of bias, discrimination, racism and sexism. It’s critical to regularly use these words and be creative with family activities on this topic: read books about children with disabilities, watch shows featuring people of various races and religions, visit ethnic restaurants and attend cultural festivals.
“Everybody has biases, we just have to keep reflecting and understanding how they happened. Every minority and diverse group has had different biases, too,” Kim says. “No one is an expert, not even persons of color. I commend anyone who thinks and talks about differences.”
Sand-Loud recommends that parents identify non-inclusive behavior, similar to pointing out safety hazards like a child riding a bicycle without a helmet. “Always model good behavior. Demonstrate fairness, have appropriate behavior and use inclusive language.”
Julie Kim, PhD, is the Section Chief of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at CHaD, and serves as an associate professor of Pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. Her areas of interest include pediatric sickle cell disease, thalassemia and other hemoglobinopathies and adolescent and young adult oncology.
Nina Sand-Loud, MD, is a developmental behavioral pediatrician in Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry at CHaD, and is an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. She is focused on autism, sleep disorders, Down syndrome and developmental delay.