Different but equal.
Why talking to your children about diversity is essential, and how to go about it.
With the abundance of different cultures in South Africa – as well as a history of racism and xenophobia – paired with news of racially and religiously motivated mass shootings regularly occurring in other countries like the USA, and rampant intolerance online, it’s vitally important to address diversity, acceptance and inclusivity with our children. Claudia Abelheim, educational psychologist at The Family Life Centre and head of their youth services, helps us break down when and how to address topics such as race, religion, disability, gender identity and LGBTQ+ with our kids.
When should you start teaching your kids about diversity?
It’s never too early to start having this conversation with your children, according to Claudia. ‘Of course, it must always be at an age-appropriate level – and the conversation will change as your children grow older – but the earlier you start, the more ingrained it will become,’ she says. While kids can be taught about diversity as soon as they’re old enough to grasp the concept of ‘different’, it’s usually around the time they begin school that their understanding really takes hold, she adds. This is also when they begin ascribing both positive and negative connotations to these differences in meaningful ways: a behaviour learnt from a variety of factors, such as their parents’ attitudes, personal experiences and exposure to other influences.
‘Kids today are exposed to more than they’ve ever been exposed to before. Through online platforms, media and their peers, it’s almost impossible for parents to control the kinds of information and opinions their children get exposed to. Now more than ever, parents need to talk to them,’ warns Claudia.
The importance of this was highlighted in August this year, when mom, writer, editor and media critic Joanna Schroeder took to Twitter with a cautionary thread on monitoring your children’s social media and the potentially dangerous influential forces they encounter online. She’d noticed a clear pattern of white supremacist, alt-right vloggers and social media accounts targeting her boys (and other white male teenagers). However, according to Joanna, their intentions aren’t to bully or coerce children, but – perhaps more insidiously – to subtly instil in them
the disillusionment, shame and eventual anger which will lead them down the path towards a bigoted and intolerant
These kinds of influences, which Joanna refers to as propaganda, rely heavily on the notion that ‘liberals’ (or the derogatorily termed ‘snowflakes’) are too sensitive, or ‘can’t take a joke’ in response to serious topics of inequality
regarding diversity. These messages are often embedded in humour and drip-fed to teens, so that – over time and without realising it – they’re being dosed with extremist, prejudiced views that they eventually buy into. Examples of this include YouTube ‘gamer’ stars (particularly popular among teens) who dispense misogynistic, racist, homophobic and generally bigoted comments and jokes on their channels to as many as tens of millions of subscribers, only to respond with cries of ‘You need to learn to take a joke!’ when confronted. So how should we handle influences over our children that are beyond our control?
Instilling understanding, acceptance and inclusivity
Although there many moving parts and circumstances beyond our control when it comes to the formation of values
and attitudes in our kids, there are also many ways we can impart positive blueprints for them to follow. Claudia suggests the following:
Encourage open discussion and establish literacy about diversity
‘Keep your eyes open for teachable moments and make use of them with your children. There are constantly opportunities all around us to bring up these kinds of discussions. When you’re out and about with your kids, you’ll see people of different races, people dressed differently due to religious beliefs and people with disabilities. You’ll see stories on TV or the news about people who are transgender. Use these opportunities not only to teach your children, but also to learn from them. Find out what their views are and how they deal with inclusivity at school,’ advises Claudia. She also suggests you encourage your children to read books and watch TV shows and movies that include topics of diversity. ‘If you do this together as a family, you can have family discussions afterwards to answer questions and explore answers together,’ she says.
Monitor and adjust your own behaviour
Parents should be very aware of their behaviour, both verbal and non-verbal, as they’re the primary role models for their kids. ‘Children are sponges and will pick up on everything. Careful consideration needs to be made of the language used in front of them, as well as actions and behaviour towards people who are different from them,’ says Claudia. Examine the way you treat and talk about people who are different from you, and how this could affect the opinions and behaviours of your kids. What you might consider to be a cheeky, slightly non-PC joke could actually be carrying a powerful message and reinforcing negative beliefs in your kids. Model kindness, respect and acceptance whenever possible.
Provide them with different points of view
If you’ve noticed that your kids are telling insensitive jokes or making negative, offhanded comments about people who are different from them, address this behaviour by discussing the serious reality of the situation and point out
different perspectives for them to consider. Expose them to positive media that questions such attitudes and let them
explore real examples of the hurt intolerance can result in. It’s important to instil the belief that standing up for
equality doesn’t make a person ‘too sensitive’ or a bore, but contributes to protecting the fundamental rights they, and
everyone else, deserve.
Prepare your children to handle interactions with people who hold intolerant views or bully others because they’re different
‘As with any form of bullying, it’s important to teach your children not to be bystanders. If they’re witnesses to bullying, they should either stand up for the person being bullied, or try to help remove them from the situation. It’s also important to teach your children that they’ll encounter people with bigoted views at certain points in their lives. However, they also need to understand if, when and how it’s appropriate to engage with them,’ advises Claudia.
If you remain concerned about your children’s behaviour, family or individual counselling is an option for you and them to explore their attitudes, as well as any underlying issues that need to be addressed. Visit: Familylife.co.za, or tel: 011 788 4784.
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: ADOBE.STOCK.COM