Look Mom, he has purple hair!
Stating the obvious at inopportune times is something many children do well. Unfortunately, handling those innocent comments at awkward moments is something most parents do not do well.
These days, diversity is increasingly common in our homes, communities, workplaces and countries. As a result, awkward moments happen more and more often. For adults, learning how to manage those situations so that we can help our children feel comfortable dealing with people who are different is very important.
Most of us, regardless of our age, experience immediate emotional reactions when we encounter something new or different. This is normal. These emotions can be positive or negative and include empathy, fearfulness, curiosity and excitement.
It's not the emotional response to differences that is the problem. In fact, feeling nothing, failing to notice or not responding to someone at all can be a more serious problem. Learning to express our feelings about diversity politely is the real issue.
It's the attitude and the behaviours that usually follow the emotion that cause problems. We can't always control the behaviour of others so one of the most important things we can teach and practice is RESPECT.
If children are taught that we are all equal on a human level and that everyone (and some people would say every living thing, too) deserves respect no matter what, that attitude will usually come through in their actions. For example, when a child is respectful but a child's words are inappropriate -- for example, he/she says, "Mom, that lady is fat," or "he can't talk right," or "that man's hair is funny," the child's tone and non-verbal communication will probably send an appropriate message. It will be obvious that the child is making a comment, not a judgment.
And what's wrong with stating the obvious? It doesn't seem right to chastise a child for being honest. The man with the big tattoo knows he has the tattoo, the girl with Tourettes knows she has Tourettes, the senior citizen knows he's old relative to the child and someone who is a little heavier knows it too. A child stating those things isn't so bad, but making faces, staring and running away is.
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Every person is unique
Teaching a child that everyone is different in many ways and that's what makes us special tells children that it's OK to acknowledge differences and to embrace them. Talk about words and behaviours that hurt and suggest alternative appropriate behaviours. Teach them tact and sensitivity.
A good approach to sensitivity training is to take time to talk about every possible difference a child might encounter. Differences could include skin colour, race, culture, religious beliefs, jobs, gender, age, education, personal style, medical issues, weight, language and even communication style. Introduce children to books and videos about all of those issues and talk to them about how they are expected to respond when they encounter them. Be specific about appropriate words and behaviours and practice them by role-playing, dressing up, or putting on puppet shows.
A respectful approach
Oftentimes it's adults, not children, who are uncomfortable with differences and it's we who shush a child, scold, embarrass or apologize for him/her and cause a big scene. Instead, why not acknowledge the difference pointed out by the child and then suggest a respectful reaction?
"Yes, Johnny, that boy does have purple hair," then smile and say hello to the purple-haired boy. "You're right, she does have pretty black hair, let's go and meet her," or "Yes, she is in a wheelchair, I wonder how she manages in the snow, let's see if she needs some help."
When children make comments like "she's fat" or "he's ugly," it's best just to smile and say hello; most people realize that children have their own minds and can be honest to a fault. Later, let the child know that he/she is entitled to an opinion but also that there is a time and place for expressing it.
Explain that saying what you think out loud can sometimes hurt someone else's feelings. Encourage him/her to find something positive to say about the different person and remind the child that everyone deserves respect.
Karen Mallett and Lewena Bayer are nationally recognized as "Canada's etiquette experts." If you would like to ask them a question, please click here.
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