Teaching Kids about Race and Cultural Diversity

How to help your grade-schooler learn to appreciate differences in people

diversity - kids of different races in classroom
Kids today have more opportunities than ever to learn about cultural and racial diversity.. Dave Nagel/Getty Images

Racial and cultural diversity is an excellent topic to teach grade-school age children. Grade-schoolers are forming lots of opinions about themselves and the people around them. This is when their natural curiosity about differences in appearance and cultural backgrounds really begin to come into play.

Children who are grade-school age are developmentally able to put cultural and racial differences into perspective.

They can either learn to appreciate -- or devalue -- traits that make others different from themselves. In other words, it’s prime time for parents and other adults in their lives to shape their attitudes about race and cultural diversity. Here are some things to keep in mind as you talk to your child about the value of differences.

You don’t have to teach tolerance. Here’s the beautiful thing about kids: Most are born with a natural sense of justice and fairness. Unless they are taught to be hurtful and cruel, children know that it’s wrong to attack others either physically or with words. All we have to do is nurture this natural love of people and get out of their way.

Don’t discourage questions. If your child has questions about differences in physical characteristics or cultural practices, discuss them openly. A school-age child may ask questions about the color of someone's skin or why some people who are from different regions of the world might look different from each other.

Children this age are learning to sort and categorize as they expand their knowledge of the world, and questions like these are normal. Talking about different cultures and customs and races and answering any questions they have teaches your child that it’s okay to notice differences, and more importantly, it teaches him that it’s good to talk about them.

Teach him to value racial and cultural diversity. Your grade-schooler will learn about other cultures, both past and present in the classroom. He may even have friends and classmates who come from different ethnic or racial backgrounds. At home, you can use these lessons as an excellent opportunity to emphasize the value racial and cultural diversity.

See the broader value of teaching acceptance. Learning to appreciate all kinds of differences -- not just racial and cultural but differences in socioeconomic levels, gender, and even disabilities -- is an important skill in today’s diverse society. A child who is taught to devalue others based upon differences will face a tough and lonely road ahead.

Take a look at your own attitude. If you are uneasy or uncomfortable around people of different backgrounds, your child will pick up on it. Consider the way you talk about people. Do you describe someone by their race rather than other characteristics first? What messages are you giving your kids through your everyday words and actions?

Discuss images in the media. We live in an age where there’s more diversity in the media -- in movies, on television, in ads -- practically everywhere we look. Some are less desirable than others. Discuss negative stereotypes and ask your grade-schooler why they are unfair or wrong. Talk about what racism is and how it can have a negative effect on our lives.

Today, our schools and neighborhoods tend to be more diverse, giving kids a chance to interact with children from other cultures and backgrounds. There’s no doubt that we still have a long way to go, but it’s great time to be an American. And as an American, I am proud of the fact that celebration of differences is what makes our country so special and great.

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