If you want a future for you kids that reflects a fantasized “good ole days”, filled with white, heterosexual, legally married couples, with 2.3 kids, living behind picket fences in suburbia, with a bunch of people just like you, this post isn’t going to help you.
If you want your kid to inherit a world where race, gender, culture, orientation, identity, and other diversity is enjoyed, welcomed, and made an integral reality in all of our lives, here are some strategies for raising a kid that is diversity savvy.
First, 3 common traps even well-intentioned parents fall into.
Sometimes we are worried about introducing mature concepts to kids. We are concerned that concepts like race, economic disparity, religious difference, differently structured families, or differences in gender identity, will confuse or overwhelm them. We wonder if we should wait until our kids are older.
The problem with this thinking is that it assumes kids haven’t noticed the differences already. They have. Not only have they noticed them, but they are thinking about them and trying to make sense of all of it.
Around age 4, when they are relentlessly sorting everything into categories, like their blue and red Legos, their big and little stacking blocks, their stuffed animals with clothes and the ones without, they are also noticing that some kids are white, some black and some brown, they are noticing the girls and boys seem to be different in some ways, they have noticed that some people have one mom and one dad, and some two moms or two dads, and some one parent and one grandparent, and that some people have one place they live, and some have two, that in some families everyone is the same color and in some families they are different. The other thing they have noticed is that you don’t want to talk about that.
Our attempts to teach our kids to be “color-blind” and polite enough to not ask about the person in the wheel chair teaches them that there are tons of taboo topics we don’t want to talk about. Whether they were casually saying that their friend at school is brown, or that girls don’t like gym as much as boys, or asking why a kid with downs-syndrome acts different, and we say, “we are all the same honey”, we shut down their curiosity.
Interesting research revealed a few years ago that our “we are all the same” approach resulted in children thinking their parents were racist because they didn’t want to talk about or acknowledge race. Plus, it isn’t true that we are all the same. We don’t have to be the same to love and respect each other. The goal of a multi-cultural world that celebrates diversity isn’t to ameliorate difference, but to enjoy it, to learn from it, and to minimally make space for it even though there are differences that are difficult for us.
There has always been difference in the world, but now it is so much more visible. We live increasingly less segregated lives, not just racially and culturally, but with gay and lesbian families moving into suburbs, and trans-folks coming out in public positions.
And yet a great number of us still approach discussions of families as if “most” or “normal” or “regular” families are white, with a mom and a dad, living in the same house, legally married, etc. and structure our discussions with kids as if that is the case. Some families have always been under-represented in the language we use to talk about what is “normal”, like multi-racial families, multi-generational households, families with differently-abled members, single and step families.
When we use language that assumes we all come from the same kind of family, we leave everyone who doesn’t fit that paradigm feeling injured, unseen, and even ashamed. Leaving kids with these feelings of not belonging will injure all of us when these kids are trying to build community as they age.
Here are the solutions.
Reject the idea that you are introducing foreign concepts, or confusing your kids by talking about the big wide world of difference. What is confusing for kids is when we pretend the world is one way, only for them to learn later that some people live life quite differently. That is confusing.
Ask your kids, what color their friends are, if they know any kids who have same-sex parents, or are adopted. Tell them about friends you have who grew up with one parent, or folks you know that are partnered but choose not to marry, or an article you read about someone who made a gender transition. When you see them notice something out in public that they clearly have a question about, whisper to them that they can ask you about it as soon as you are in a different setting, and then let them ask their questions about physical or developmental disabilities, about fat people, about little people. Nothing is taboo.
You may be worried about what to say, or how to say it, but your silence is worse. Tell them the issues are confusing and that the important thing is to be generous in your thinking, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
It is so easy for us to say things to our kids like “when you meet a wo/man and get married and have kids”. Don’t assume they will choose marriage or parenting or heterosexuality. When you ask about your kids’ friends, ask them who they live with, rather than asking who their parents are.
Even when we you know the answer to certain questions, or when the answer seems obvious, we can teach our children not to make assumptions by asking them questions, like if they think their friend’s parents are the same color as them, or whether they think their friend came to the family by adoption or birth. Essentially, not assuming that everyone is like us or different from us, but rather so many variations that curiosity is our only option.
Our children, empowered with their awesome skills of observation and driving curiosity, are the best tools for building a richly diverse world. Let’s help them develop their craft.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.