This blog was written for the Little Ruth book series.
It starts with you. As James Baldwin (writer and civil rights activist) says, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Therefore, just as you can pass on prejudices to your children—you can also pass on respect, empathy, and an appreciation of diversity. To give you a practical guidebook, the Little Ruth Team formulated 4 actions to take today—and every day—with your children.
Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Harvard professor and coauthor of Raising Black Children, says that around age 4 children start naturally getting curious about why some people physically look different. "The message you want to send is that, though people may look different on the outside, they're all the same inside. However, making too big a deal of the question and over-examining differences can signal that there's something wrong with diversity.”
Helpful response to use: People are just like ice cream—vanilla, chocolate, caramel—all different flavors but equally yummy!
Reading books that include diverse characters, such as the Little Ruth series, is an excellent way for young minds to visually embrace diversity at home.
Call out bigotry and stereotyping in an educational way.
Sadly, stereotypes can be ingrained early in childhood. For example, many cartoons show the villain as a darker-skinned person with a foreign name, and the princess is a blond Caucasian. In school, your child may hear phrases like, “All Asians are good at math and computers.” “Muslims are connected to terrorists.”
In the media or real life, talk about positive or negative stereotypes with your children. Point out why you can never generalize a group of people and provide defying examples.
Helpful response to use: Everyone gets to be their own unique person. Always be kind. It’s never a good idea to exclude, bully, or say generalized things to someone else (even if they are positive).
Teach your child about empathy AND boundaries.
The main goal of empathy is being able to understand someone more clearly so that you can be kinder and more compassionate to another person. To teach empathy to your kids, The Mental Health Center For Kids provides 25 Empathy Activities For Kids. Most of the activities are perfect for kids ages 4 and up.
It is also essential to teach your kids that some people require empathy—and boundaries. They should never accept physical and emotional attacks or unhealthy friendships in the interest of being inclusive. This could look like honest communication to the harmful person about why they are respectfully distancing themselves. Encouraging the practice of honest communication at a young age will also serve them well throughout their lives.
Helpful response to use: While we want to be respectful and empathic, you don’t have to eat lunch or play on the playground with someone who is mean to you.
As Prentis Hemphill says, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
Foster a sense of identity and understanding.
Treating children with basic respect and dignity is the best way to help them develop self-esteem. "Happy, well-adjusted kids tend not to be bigots," says Peter Langman, Ph.D., "Kids who feel like they aren't valued tend to look for targets—someone they deem 'different'—to release their own anger and frustration."
On the flip side, if your child understands the behind-the-scenes reason why another kid is being mean to them, they might view the situation with a more empathic lens. Instead of seeing a kid who is on-purpose mean to them, they could see a kid who is deeply hurting and releasing their pain.
Helpful response to use: Sometimes, when a kid bullies you (or another kid), it is because they do not feel loved, valued, or seen. It is not about you, but rather them releasing their inner pain on you.
Raising an inclusive kid is an ongoing process—not a single conversation. Always make them feel like you are safe to talk to about anything. Raising a kind, empathic, and inclusive kid is one of the greatest gifts you can give our world. Therefore, never put a period where a comma should be—AKA always keep the inclusive conversation going.