For assembly this morning I spoke to the children about difference, primarily from the perspective of how we have differences as individuals but these help to provide a cohesive community.
Young children love to sort things by colour, by shape or by type, such as a car or train. They make sense of their world by seeing how things fit into categories. In most cases we encourage them to think about classifications, especially when it helps them to remember to put the Lego in the Lego box, the books on the bookshelf and the dirty socks in the laundry basket!
Generally, people are treated differently because they are seen as “the other.” For children, anything outside of “normal” may seem undesirable. It is helpful to challenge the idea of “normal” to see past differences. All of us are born unique with different likes and preferences, so there is no one particular way to be “normal.”
Teaching children to see similarities is important, but the goal is not to eliminate our differences. By acknowledging differences and similarities simultaneously, children will find they can learn from people who are not similar to them. Studies show that ignoring differences actually makes discrimination worse.
It can be embarrassing to hear your child ask questions about “different” people, but questions often come from a place of innocent curiosity. It is best to be as honest as possible, and as parents we should never be afraid of admitting we do not know.
It can be hard for children to see themselves in people who are different, which is why it is important to encourage children to empathise and help them get to know people not similar to themselves. It may be helpful to review your child’s media and related influences. Does it include diverse individuals and oppose cultural stereotypes? When children see “different” people in a positive light, they are better prepared to challenge harmful stereotypes. It is helpful to encourage children to make friends who are not similar to them. One of the best ways to improve intergroup relations is simply interpersonal contact. Getting to know people different from oneself leads to reduced prejudice and increased understanding.
It may seem easier to shield children from challenging issues, such as racism, but the reality is children will be confronted with these issues through the media or in day-to-day conversations. Generally, young people are able to recognise when somebody is being treated differently. Seize the moment to model empathy and make it clear that it is unacceptable to use slurs, to use identity as an insult or to treat somebody worse because they are different.
While adults may understand using nuanced language in reference to groups of people, children may not yet have the language or skill set to do so. Children want to know why people are different, what this means and how those differences relate to them. Children’s questions and comments are a way for them to gather information about aspects of their identity and usually do not stem from bias or prejudice. If a child says something potentially offensive, it probably is not intended to be harmful. It is best to correct the underlying misconceptions behind their statement or engage them in a conversation about how their words could hurt feelings.
Returning to the assembly this morning, I asked the staff for information about themselves that others would not know. It was amazing to see the diversity across the staff, from sky diving and blue belt Ju-Jitsu to delivering a baby in a ladies’ toilet and being able to fly gliders solo. Not only did the activity demonstrate how the staff have huge differences but it also challenged prejudice. We must continue to question why we bring opinions to the table. So often it comes down to our experiences of difference.