3 Ways You Can Learn From Children About Diversity

Last month, in my local community in Central Indiana, there was a school board meeting where our new Diversity Equity and Inclusion leader spoke about her strategy.  In response at the meeting, a group of angry White parents spoke out against teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion in our schools.  

Why might this happen?

Lack of understanding.  Their main sources of misunderstanding were the teaching of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 project.  Both of which are not in the curriculum, nor is the DEI leader directing curriculum development on diversity.  However, these parents stood there confidently taking up space, speaking rather than listening to this DEI leader. 

This event got me thinking…

  • We fear what we don’t understand. 
  • We misunderstand what we do not already know. 
  • We confuse emotions with facts. 

I’m not angry at these parents, I empathize with them. Their fear is real to them.  They don’t have an understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion and are likely intimidated their kids will understand more than they do.   That fear is likely driving them to not seek out new information.

Our brains don’t like to unlearn something we think we understand.  Our brains like to cement what it thinks is already known.  So, if you grew up in a time where you learned it was impolite to discuss matters of race or diversity, and color-blindness was encouraged, these beliefs will show up in avoidance behavior. 

In talking with some of the angry White parents, they believe that teaching children about diversity will either shame children or even encourage racist behavior.  The challenge with these beliefs is there is no data to support that this is true. 

Conversely, there is a plethora of data to support that children form racial bias between the ages of 2 and 4 and these are cemented by the age 12.  If we don’t talk to children during this critical time, we risk perpetuating systems of racism and racist thinking that’s embedded in our society.

Children embrace diversity.  They see different skin colors, gender identities, hobbies and interests as additive.  They naturally are curious to learn more about people that are different than them, rather than judge them.  Exclusion is a learned behavior as we progress through adolescence into adulthood. 

I spend 90% of my time training adults on diversity and inclusive behavior.  It’s way too late to address racist beliefs later in life.  It’s hard on our brains to unlearn and relearn the patterns we have seen over a lifetime.  It is not impossible though.  I see lots of allies-in-training making everyday strides. It’s harder as we age.  We are fighting years of hardwiring.  Let’s start this conversation earlier.

If you are an ally in the making, and you have little people in your life – neighbors, your children, friends’ kids, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, I encourage you to have this conversation with them.  It is not easy, but it is incredibly insightful.  If you are like me, you will learn more from them than they will from you.

Some tips we have found incredibly impactful to talk with children about diversity:

  1. Be curious.  Ask them, “I am curious what you think about this….” or “I wonder how you see this…” 
  2. Meet them where they are at.  Age matters.  As children advance through elementary school, they can have more in-depth conversations about race, gender, disabilities, LGBTQ+ and other dimensions of diversity.  Subjects like slavery and sexual orientation are different at different ages.
  3. Personalize it.  Ask them, “have you noticed something like this…” or “does anything like this happen at school or with your friends…”  My 7-year old has shared some doozies with me already about racist behavior at her school.  This happens to our children.  They can do better, but they need tools.

If you want tools to support this conversation with little allies in your life, check out thelittleallies.com.  There you can get the children’s book, download our discussion guide and Ally Promise.  100% of online proceeds go to organizations supporting this work in our communities.

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