For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Social Life

Preparing Children for a Multicultural World

by the Staff of the NYU Child Study Center

Introduction

You're standing in the supermarket checkout line with your 3-year-old when suddenly she points to another little girl sitting in a nearby shopping cart and asks in a rather loud voice, "Mommy, why is that girl’s skin brown?" or “Mommy, why is that lady wearing a scarf all over her head?” As heads turn, you become embarrassed. You worry, "What kind of parent do they think I am?" or, "How should I answer?" or, even more disturbing, "Why would my child ask such a thing?"

Sound familiar? You are not alone. Many parents have experienced similar incidents at some point during their child's preschool years. Parents often respond with fear and concern—"Is my child prejudiced?"

Preschoolers have a natural curiosity about themselves, others and the world. While they may notice differences in appearance, they are not making value judgments when they make such comments. Parents can use such opportunities to teach positive values and tolerance. As your preschooler is beginning to learn how to behave and interact with others, it is an ideal time to help him or her learn that the world and the people with whom they interact are richly diverse. This teaching process comes easier to some parents than others.

Beginning at the age of three, children start to become aware of color and other differences and develop skills in racial classification; that is, they begin to accurately group people by skin color but not by race. It is not until around age five that children begin to understand that skin color means something more than mere color. It's important to remember that children aren't born with adult-like biases. They don't see "reality' the way adults do. Young children respond to what is directly observable. Parents can do much to foster an environment that allows children to become racially, ethnically and culturally healthy. The following suggestions can help parents teach tolerance and acceptance at an early age:

Provide the basics

Children who are raised in a nurturing environment where they feel loved, supported, and valued have the best chance of developing a healthy self-image. If your child feels good about herself and confident about her place in the world, she will be less likely to be fearful of people who are different from her.

Set a good example

Children learn from observing your interactions with others. If you're respectful of all people, your children will follow suit. A little self-analysis is essential in being a good role model. Parents should be aware of the impact of their own biases on their children's developing ideas about differences in race, religion, skin color etc. It is also important to respond to other people's biased behavior. If a family member or neighbor tells an ethnic joke or makes a racial slur in front of you or your child, confront the issue immediately.

Relax and answer the question

When your children ask about skin color or other differences they have noticed among people, answer in a relaxed, straightforward way. If your child detects embarrassment or annoyance in your words, tone or facial expression, he might think something is wrong with being different or feel that he is bad for asking. You might say. "You see how your skin is like mine? Well, his skin is like his parents, his grandparents, and other people in his family." Or ‘People who come from other countries wear different kinds of clothing..” If you are standing in a crowd and would feel more comfortable talking privately, you can simply say, "That's an important question. Let's talk about that when we have some time alone."

Expose your child to different cultures

The friendships your child makes can have a lasting effect. Consider schools or childcare programs that embrace diversity and include children representative of different cultures. An environment that reflects diversity can help children appreciate the richness of our world. And on a practical level, children need to learn how to interact with a variety of people-not just now, but throughout their lives. Someday, after all, these children will share the workplace with people of all colors and backgrounds. Also, fun-to-read books that happen to feature multiracial characters are another great way to help your child see the world as it really exists.

Correct your children

If your children make an insensitive remark, remind them of how they feel when they aren't treated well by their friends. As they learn to identify with other people's feelings, they'll gain insight into the unfairness and harshness of prejudice.

If this nation is to prosper in the next millennium respect and appreciation of the cultural mosaic that is this country is vital.

How can parents and teachers help teach tolerance?

Adapt the activities suggested below for different ages, using developmentally appropriate language. For example, even young children are aware of differences in appearances:

  • Parents should affirm young children’s curiosity about race and ethnicity by pointing out that people come in many colors.

  • Emphasize that groups of people should not be judged for the actions of a few.

  • Teaching tolerance is an ongoing process, not a single discussion, and should be discussed from different points of view as incidents occur.

  • Encourage role playing and discuss both sides of an issue.

  • Be sensitive to racial and cultural stereotypes and have a discussion when stereotypes are portrayed

  • In the media. Avoid making negative statements, even in the form of humor, about any racial, ethnic or religious group.

  • Expose children to different cultures; read books with multicultural themes and provide access to diverse music, literature and art.

  • Create opportunities for children to interact with people from different backgrounds. Consider enrolling children in schools, child care facilities and after-school sports that value diversity.

  • Research your own family history to determine from where and under what circumstances grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated.

  • Teach older children how to take action. Knowing what to do, such as lodging a complaint with the appropriate school personnel or writing a letter to an editor, when they experience intolerance enables children to feel they have some control.
Date Published: December 1, 1999
Date Reviewed: December 3, 2008