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Teaching Children About Diversity

October is Diversity Month in schools across the United States. Freddi Greenberg, editor-in-chief of Nick Jr. magazine, joins The Saturday Early Show with pointers on how to talk to kids about people who are different from themselves and activities that add diversity to their daily lives.

Right now, people on the street and in the media are expressing hate and distrust of Arabs and Muslims, which presents the perfect opportunity to parents to lecture children on the dangers of stereotyping.

Resist that urge. Unless a young child raises the subject himself, he will not absorb a parent's well-meant advice, and much of it may be over his head.

The same holds true for older children. Wait for them to make an opportunity for discussion. A child may ask a blunt question, but parents should also pay attention to play habits and conversations with young friends. If you observe negative behavior, it's appropriate to talk about it.

When questions arise, provide gentle, direct answers. Don't provide more information than kids request.

Most importantly, never stifle a question. For instance, if you are in a grocery store with your child who wants to know "why that man has a towel around his head" or "why that lady's chair has wheels," give a short answer right away. By reacting negatively (like saying "don't talk about that" or "shhh, we'll talk later"), you give your child the message that there is something wrong with traditional Arab dress or being unable to walk.

Parents can expect their child to start noticing and commenting on differences about age three. As much as parents might like to believe that their kids can't understand or don't pay attention, that's simply not the case. This means adults must take a careful look at their own lives and prejudices.

As the most important role model in a preschool and elementary student's life, a parent will be immitated - closesly. At this age, kids absorb even the most casual comment and take it seriously.

In addition to setting an example, parents can bring diversity into their children's lives through daily activities. Introducing cultures and ideas through hands-on activities is easy and much better than a simple conversation or lecture. Kids are more likely to remember the activity and thus, the lesson associated with it.

Also, when kids have fun learning about people who are different from themselves, they are likely to see the differences as positive. It's hard to hate something you are comfortable with.

Remember: You may know that kids in the Middle East are more likely to dip their carrots in hummus than peanut butter but to a 3-year-old, that's news!

Here are some activities to try at home.

  • Introducing different physical abilities:
    1. Read "Winnie-the-Pooh's ABCs of Sign Language."
    2. Point out the Braille on the ATM machine.
    3. Buy dolls, action figures, and stuffed animals that are in wheelchair or are "differently abled" in other ways.

  • Introducing different races:
    1. Again, buy dolls of all races.
    2. Read books that show people of different races and talk about how to describe the differences in a positive way.
    3. Keep the art drawer stocked with crayons that represent all skin tones. (Crayola has a special collection of these colors.)

  • Introducing different cultures:
    1. Hang up a calendar that shows art from different countries.
    2. Play music from different cultures.
    3. Serve snacks and meals from different cultures; buy a kid's cookbook and let your child help prepare the food.
    4. Sing "Happy Birthday" in a different language.

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