Talking About Things That Matter: Diversity & Differences

If you’re looking for posts so far in this series, you can click here for Part I on Technology & here for Part II on Social Media.

Parenting is filled with awkward moments.

Regardless of your kid’s age or stage in life, being a parent means that there will be times when your kids will frustrate you, embarrass you and make things awkward. While you may laugh about those moments later, at the time, you wish the ground would open and swallow you up.

I love hearing about other people’s awkward parenting moments with their kids. I love hearing about the things kids say in their innocence and honesty that make us blush. Honestly, it’s one of my favourite things about getting to interact with so many kids & parents on a regular basis.

Since becoming a parent on my own though, I’m realizing that these awkward moments are more frequent than I may have anticipated. Even my adorable, just-learning-to-talk toddler has a way of saying or doing things in public places that well – you wish you could be any place else.

From numerous conversations with friends and parents, it seems that one of the most common ways kids embarrass us is by pointing out what is different about others that come across our paths. For me, in this stage, it’s a simple “Mommy, LOOK!”

But as kids get older, they have a knack for noticing when people are different – whether that’s someone with a disability, different skin colour, or one of the many other things that make people unique and diverse. While children tend to point out these things out of innocence and curiosity, they still manage to make us parents sweat!

I actually think that these awkward moments of noticing differences are a great conversation starter on an important topic – diversity. We live in a beautiful, diverse world. I believe God created it to be that way. However, because of sin and the hardness of human hearts, diversity is often seen as something to be feared, erased or mocked.

The reality of racism, prejudice and stereotypes are perhaps more real in today’s world than ever. Despite the many steps we’ve made forward, stories appear in our newsfeeds and on our television screens daily about how mistreatment creeps into our schools, workplaces and communities. This is the world that we are trying to navigate with our families.

So, how do we do it? How do we talk about differences and diversity in an appropriate and respectful way? How do we teach our kids to celebrate the creativity of our God? How do we deal with teaching our kids about disabilities and differences?

First things first, this conversation cannot be a one-off. Acknowledging diversity, speaking against prejudice or mistreatment, and answering questions cannot just happen once, and then never be spoken of again. Our kids learn from the way we speak about,  act around and interact with people who are different than us. This conversation is one that needs to be woven into the fabric of our families – even when it makes us uncomfortable or stretches us.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on starting (and continuing) the conversation.

Encourage curiousity and questions in appropriate settings.

We often think that silence means our kids are being respectful and understanding – but that is often not the case. If a child never hears diversity and differences discussed, they won’t know what to think. If they don’t hear YOU talking about it or talk to YOU about it, they will get their views about differences from somewhere. While those views may be healthy, there are many in our world today who talk inappropriately and mistreat those who are different. You don’t want your child to take cues about differences from them.

So, let your kids ask questions. If you see someone who looks different than you the next time you’re in the store, don’t SHUSH your child. Don’t reprimand them for asking a question or pointing out a difference. Explain that God made people differently, or that people who come from different places look different! Depending on your child’s age, use those questions as a launching pad for a deep-dive into a book, video or conversation about a particular country, racial group or culture.

Curiousity about what is different than us is natural. Don’t discourage that curiousity. Instead, use it as an opportunity to celebrate the diversity in the world around us. Of course, curiousity and asking questions doesn’t mean rudeness is okay. If you notice your child making rude remarks or making fun of those who are different, that behaviour must be stopped. While curiousity is a natural, acceptable behaviour, rudeness and meanness isn’t.

Model acceptance and diversity in your lives.

My first real exposure to the diversity of our world was while living in Toronto for university. During my time there, I was exposed to a host of different cultures and saw multi-culturalism on full display. I loved making friends with different backgrounds, trying ethnically diverse foods and being able to see glimpses of the world beyond the small-town, Newfoundland life I had always known.

I think that if we want our kids to be loving, accepting members of our society, we need to model acceptance and display diversity in our lives. Kids learn not only from the words we speak, but the actions we model. If kids never see someone who looks or acts different than them, they will hear the message that everyone is like me.

For some of us, practising acceptance and embracing diversity may come more naturally. You may be part of a community, live in a town, or attend a church where multi-culturalism is woven into the fabric. Your job then, is simply to let your child see the many differences that exist. Build relationships with those who are different than you. Visit different parts of your community. Ask questions and learn from your friends and acquaintances about their culture and background.

If you’re like me, and you live in a small town, embracing diversity in the life of your family will take a little more work. If getting to know someone who is from a different culture than you just isn’t possible or practical, expose your kids to differences through the books you read and the media you consume. Buy books that feature characters of different backgrounds. Watch TV shows where the cast isn’t all white. When you travel, be sure to visit places where the culture is different than the place you live and celebrate it!

Regardless of where you live, your kids will adopt the attitudes you have about those who are different. So if you avoid eye contact with people who look different than you do – guess what? Your kids probably will too. If you remark on the “weirdness” or “smelliness” or make a sly joke when you visit another part of town, try a different food or travel to a different country, guess what? Your kids will probably feel the same way!

Acknowledge your privilege (if it exists).

Even as I write this piece, I am acutely aware that there are many families who don’t have the luxury of deciding if and when to have this conversation. If your family is part of a racial minority, conversations about race won’t be optional for you. If your kids have special needs, the conversation about being different is probably a consistent one in your home.

In recent years, the term “white privilege” has become increasingly common. Put simply, white privilege refers to the fact that people with white skin have advantages in society that other people do not. I am often not aware of the privilege that I have, simply because of the color of my skin. White privilege means that I don’t have to worry about if police will take my phone call seriously, if my job application will be ignored based simply on my name, or if I will be pulled aside for additional airport screening based on my appearance or the name on my passport. In fact, I don’t even think about these things.

The fact that I have this privilege doesn’t mean my life is 100% easy, nor does it mean I don’t face difficulties. It doesn’t mean I need to feel guilty. What it does mean, is because I have privilege, I have great responsiblity. I have responsiblity to choose NOT to be complicit to the systems that have created this privilege, to lean in and listen to the voices of those who don’t have this privilege, and to fight for and alongside those who are not as privileged as I am. I also need to choose to make sure my children are aware of this privilege, and the responsibility it holds for them.

What about disabilities/physical differences?

Racial and cultural diversity of course, isn’t the only kind that exists. I am also very aware that in our world, there are many who have disabilities and physical differences. The way we navigate disabilities may be slightly different than the way we navigate race & culture.

You see, as a Christian, I believe that God created different races and cultures as part of His original, beautiful design. They are His creativity on display. I also believe that physical disability, difficulty and disease were NOT a part of His original design. I believe that because our world is full of brokenness, these things exist. So, while I celebrate racial diversity as good and beautiful, I view physical disabilities – in part – as a sign that all is not as it should be in our world.

Just because all is not as it should be though, doesn’t mean that the way I teach my children to engage should be any different. I want Levi to know that there are people who have different abilities than he does – whether physically, mentally or cognitively – but that doesn’t mean they are less. I want him to know that he can have beautiful and meaningful friendships with kids who may not be able to do all the things that he can do. I have seen this already – thanks to some beautiful people in our lives who may not be able to walk or talk like Levi, but can certainly love and smile and be a friend to him.

So, I make sure – even from this young age – that Levi spends time around those who are different from him. I make sure that in our children’s ministry, we make space for questions about those who have disabilities, but also include them fully and lavish love.

Kids learn from what they see, hear and what they are taught.
I want to be part of raising a generation that loves deeply, celebrates difference and models the world God intended for us to have. That means I don’t shy away from the tough conversations, but go all in – asking the questions, celebrating the differences and encouraging Levi (and me, in the process) to love well.

Resources I Recommend 
(Remember a link to a particular site doesn’t mean full endorsement of all their content!)
“God’s Very Good Idea” by Trillia Newbell
“God’s Dream” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“God Made Me and You” by Shai Linne
“The Gospel in Color” from Patrol
“Talking to My White Children about Racism” by Barefoot Mommy
“Why Colorblind Isn’t the Goal When Talking to Kids About Diversity” from
6 Ways to Teach Your Kids Disability Awareness” at Scary Mommy
Diversity: How to Help Kids See Others & Themselves in the Bible” at American Bible Society
“How To Talk to Your Kids About Race” at CT Women

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