Artist: Michelle Mildenberg 

It was a seemingly normal Sunday stroll to the park with my kids. I sipped my tea, teetering on the edge of alertness, oblivious to the world around me, and the words edging their way toward my toddler’s mouth, “Mommy! Look at that fat man!” shattered the silence.

Immediately snapped awake, I wished for a total eclipse to spare me from the spotlight of the bright sun so I, and my burning cheeks, could swiftly disappear into the darkness. My prayers were in vain, so I took the route that most parents in this situation are offered and mouthed a squeaky, “I’m so sorry” before turning back to meet my son’s innocent face, stunned and unsure of what to say.

One of the most amazing qualities children possess is the uninhibited ability to say exactly what is on their minds. As adults, we’ve learned to follow a specific set of social rules and think before we speak—well, most of the time. But children, especially toddlers, haven’t mastered expressing their observations and opinions with tact, leaving it up to parents to give them their first lessons in diversity and prosocial behavior (behavior with the intent to benefit others and society as a whole).

Of course, it’s not easy when presented with an unexpected comment by your toddler to have the best response at hand, especially when you’re trying to overcome what might feel like an awkward moment in a social setting. Kristen Denzer, CEO & Founder of Tierra Encantada (a Spanish-immersion daycare and preschool), encourages parents to normalize differences and avoid projecting their own embarrassment onto their children. “The best way to respond when a child comments on physical appearances is to let them know that there a lot of different types of people and they are all great,” says Kristen. She also recommends being intentional about surroundings, being sure to provide children with toys and books that represent diversity.

While toddlers may not fully grasp the ideas behind deeper conversations on diversity, they do watch and learn from their parents more than we might realize, so demonstrating the behavior and language you want your child to practice is key to developing their prosocial behavior. Modeling acceptance and having open discussions at home not only helps teach children the respectful way to talk about their observations but also allows parents to monitor where and how they are learning about differences. This allows parents to raise their children with their preferred set of family values, simultaneously preparing them for differences in peers and people in their community.

“It starts at home,” says Lakeisha Jerome, MA, PPS, a counselor at Culver City Unified School District, when asked how parents can find everyday teachable moments to talk about diversity with their children. “Choose things your child is playing, reading, or watching, and take advantage of the opportunity to help them reflect on situations in which they could understand and relate to someone different from them.” As a counselor to elementary students, Lakeisha understands that children sometimes unintentionally say hurtful things and she uses these situations to encourage children to learn the importance of apologizing.

Exposing children to different types of people within the community is a great way to extend these learnings outside of the home. Having your child participate in activities that include working with others towards a common goal creates awareness and helps foster the respect and celebration of diversity. In her book Growing Sustainable Together: Practical Resources for Raising Kind, Engaged, Resilient Children, author, and parent Shannon Brescher Shea talks about the importance of including children in outdoor activities that promote inclusivity. “Gardening, biking, and using public transportation are all activities that allow young children to see and interact with people of different cultures and experiences while doing something great for the environment,” says Shannon.

Providing toddlers with the regular opportunity to learn about and engage with people who appear different from themselves—while normalizing these differences—allows them to focus on commonality and develop a long-lasting mindset that people, at their core, are more alike than different and that accepting and celebrating differences is key to the relationships they will build throughout their lives.

What I did end up saying to my son back on that eventful Sunday morning was, “Honey, we have to be careful with what we say because sometimes words can hurt.” It was the best I could come up with on the spot, though I’m much better equipped and prepared today to discuss differences with my toddler.

—Candace Nagy

Mother. Writer. Lover of history and nature. Read more by Candace here.


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