Discussing Differences in Family Life
Initiating Conversations with Your Children about Racial and Social Justice…
Guest Post by Shauna Tominey, Author, Creating Compassionate Kids; Essential Conversations to Have with Young Children
“A great nation is a compassionate nation…”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you had to pick one word to describe the world you want your child to grow up in, what would it be? Safe? Understanding? Resilient? Compassionate? When I asked this question of parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, social service professionals, business leaders, and other community members, these are the words they chose. And yet, not all of our children experience a world that reflects these values to the same degree.
Coming from a multicultural family, I grew up in a household where multiple cultures were celebrated and multiple languages were spoken. I was taught that differences don’t matter. I heard this same message echoed in our predominantly white community so I believed it. The first real conversation I can remember having about race was in high school. Our sociology teacher asked us each to write down a list of words that defined how we saw ourselves. I don’t remember the specific words that I chose now, but I know they weren’t much different than the words my classmates chose (e.g., nice, smart, funny). “Mr. G” shared that every year, the one or two Black/African-American students in his classes always wrote the word “Black” first. So why was it that none of us wrote down the word, “White?”
After graduating from high school and moving around the country for school, job opportunities, and as a military spouse, I quickly realized that the idea that differences don’t matter just isn’t true.
Differences do matter. They matter a lot.
In the 20 years that followed, I had the privilege of hearing thousands of conversations between children and the adults in their lives while working as an early childhood educator, parenting educator, and researcher. I couldn’t help paying attention to the way differences, like race, were talked about across settings (rural and urban), socioeconomic backgrounds, races, cultures, and life experiences. Every parent and caregiver I met had something in common: they all loved their children and wanted the best for them. Most adults had conversations with children about how much they loved them, as well as the hopes and dreams they had for them. Many adults also had conversations about family or community values—although specific values differed.
There were other differences in conversations too.
While working with military families, deployment, separation, and war were constant conversation topics, but not something others discussed. For families in inner city, urban areas, race and how people look at you and treat you based on the color of your skin was a daily reminder of the discrimination some children faced, but these conversations weren’t happening as often in other families (if ever). Some families talked with their children about why there wasn’t enough food on the table, whereas others discussed which Ivy League school would be best to attend. Families who had a child with a special need or exceptionality spent significant time educating others about the supports their child needed to thrive while also trying to convince others that their child deserved to be valued as much as any other child in their community. And, families who didn’t conform to society’s expectations of what it means to be a family (e.g., mixed-race families, blended families, gay-lesbian headed families, single parent families) carried the weight of reassuring their children and the world around them that there was just as much love in their family as any other.
I started to wonder how it might benefit other families to hear the conversations that others were having with their children and this thought inspired my own parenting as well as my recent book, Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children.
When we teach children that differences don’t matter, we do it with the best intentions. Without intending to, however, we may be ignoring that there are children and families whose lives are defined every day by their differences. We can all point to an example of how we (or our children) feel different or don’t fit in. Sometimes this helps us practice empathy. Sometimes it leads us to overlook the fact that the way differences impact our lives is not equal.
There was a reason a student from a community of color living in a white community wrote down “Black” at the top of his list. Not only did he likely have a strong connection to his own family, race, and cultural heritage, this also was how he was defined by everyone who looked at him (or who chose to avoid looking at him by crossing to the opposite side of the street). Research confirms that the perceptions we have of others makes a difference in how they are treated as well as the opportunities they have (e.g., Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016). For some, this can be serious, if, as a result, they experience bullying or harassment, and even becoming a matter of life and death.
Rather than teaching children that differences don’t matter, what if we teach children that differences shouldn’t matter, but that they do? Let’s consider how we can help children learn to recognize the similarities they share with others, acknowledging the struggles we have with differences in our society, and learn to celebrate these differences.
Try these strategies with the children in your life:
1) Talk about the qualities that make us and others who we are. Having conversations about temperament, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, race, culture, abilities and disabilities, and different types of families can help children learn about who they are and who they will become. In general, families from non-dominant or minority groups tend to talk with children about qualities, such as race, more often than those from dominant groups (Hughes et al., 2006), but we could all share this responsibility. Teaching children self- awareness often begins with conversations that focus on qualities that we can see in children or expect our children to develop, but these conversations can’t end here. We can also help children learn about qualities that others have too so that they can develop a greater understanding for people who are similar to and different from themselves.
Extend this strategy:
Draw self- portraits. Use crayons, colored pencils, or paint to draw self- portraits together with your child. Look at pictures of yourselves or into a mirror as you draw. Talk about the different colors you see and try to match your skin, hair, and eye color in your artwork.
2) Focus on shared feelings. Everyone has the same feelings (though some children have more pleasant or unpleasant feelings than others). Help children focus on the fact that we all have feelings as a way to build empathy. Ask questions like, “How do you think he/she is feeling?” or think out loud, “I wonder how they are feeling?” Stopping to think about how another person might feel can help your child build a connection with that person and focus on what they have in common while also appreciating apparent differences.
Extend this strategy:
Go beyond, “How was your day? Ask about different feelings that your child has during the day. “What happened today that made you feel happy? Did anything happen today that led you to feel disappointed? What was it? How about excited?” Take turns choosing feelings and make sure that everyone— children and adults— all have a chance to share. Taking your child’s feelings seriously will help them learn to do the same for others.
3) Teach children that differences do matter. Talk with children about the fact that people sometimes look at or treat others differently because of the color of their skin, how they look, how they talk, how they move, or for other reasons. Let your child know that this is never okay (unless someone needs a special accommodation that is helpful for them). Brainstorm together ideas for what to do if and when you see this happening at school or in the community.
Extend this strategy:
Conduct family surveys. Help your child think of a question to ask family members (or friends) as a way to start conversations about similarities and differences. Ask questions about personal qualities (e.g., hair color, eye color) or likes/dislikes (favorite vegetable, favorite season, favorite game). Help your child write each person’s response, and talk about ways members of your family are similar and different from one another.
4) Use storybooks to highlight diverse experiences and role models. Read many different books with your child that include diverse characters. All children need role models who look like they do, dress like they do, share their abilities and challenges, love like they do, and have families that looks like theirs. Finding role models in storybooks that are similar to and different from your child can help them feel comfortable and confident as they develop their own identity (Kim & Tinajero, 2016). Sharing diverse role models also helps children see one another as part of the same community.
Extend this strategy:
Book scavenger hunt. Use the books you have at home, or visit your public library. Try to find books that have different types of people and families in them: families with two parents (one mom and one dad, two dads, two moms), families with one parent (one mom, one dad), families with grandparents, families with adopted children, multiracial families, stepfamilies, and others. See how many different kinds of families you can find. Talk about the types of families that were easiest to find in books, and the types of families that were the most difficult to find. Were there any types of families that you could not find in a book? Why do you think that is? How do you think it feels to families who cannot find books showing families that are similar to their own?
5) Strive to learn more and be inclusive within your own community. You can serve as a positive role model for the children in your life by showing interest in learning more about other individuals and families. Read stories, watch documentaries, and look for ways to learn more about the experiences of others. Participate in community cultural events and get to know other families in your community.
Extend this strategy:
Tell your child stories about how you learned about your own family culture when you were young. Share stories about your own childhood to teach your child about what was important in your family when you were young. Which of those traditions have you kept? What new traditions have you added to your family? Give each family member a chance to share about their experiences to help your child see where the many different cultural traditions in their family came from.
As we work toward a more compassionate world, there are many things we can do to model compassion and help the children in our lives learn skills to do the same. Too often, individuals and families from non-dominant groups (those from communities of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, those who have an exceptionality or special need; those who don’t conform to gender or ability norms) carry the responsibility to educate others, to explain themselves, or even to defend themselves. If we actively teach our children to value themselves and others for our similarities and differences, we can share this responsibility as we strive to create an increasingly compassionate community for all children.
Learn more at: http://www.creatingcompassionatekids.org
About the author: Shauna Tominey is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University. She currently serves as the Principal Investigator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative and previously served as the Director of Early Childhood Programming and Teacher Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. As a former early childhood teacher and family service professional, Dr. Tominey blends practical experience with research to develop and test programs aimed at promoting social-emotional skills for children and the adults in their lives. She is the author of “Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children.”
CPCK Note: What an absolute honor and delight it is to learn from Shauna Tominey! Her new book is at the top of my reading list and looks truly exceptional for promoting one of the most important skills in our children: compassion. In fact, as I worked with Highlights for Children this Fall, I learned from the 2,000 U.S. kids they surveyed, that kids say they want to help others when they see they are in pain but don’t know how. This article provides a great start and Shuana’s book builds out those strategies into ways of parenting and cultivating a family culture that makes raising children for compassion a way of life. Thank you, Shauna! We need much more of your educational resources in the world!
Gilliam, W. S., Maupin, A. N., Reyes, C. R., Accavitti, M., & Shic, F. (2016). Do early educators’ implicit biases regarding sex and race relate to behavior expectations and recommendations of preschool expulsions and suspensions. Research Study Brief. Yale University, Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT.
Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E. P., Johnson, D. J., Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents’ ethnic- racial socialization practices: A review of research and directions for future study. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 747– 770.
Kim, S. J., & Tinajero, J. (2016). Teaching diversity to bilingual children: Mexican- origin kindergarteners’ discussions about children’s literature depicting non- traditional gender roles. Linguistics and Literature Studies, 4, 171– 180.
*Originally published on 1/17/19