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How To Teach Your Child About Family Differences

Children, especially young children, are constantly learning how to navigate the world around them. When you’re new to the world, everything around you is new too. The experiences they have and the lessons they learn during these formative years will shape the kind of adult that they eventually become. 

How To Teach Your Child About Family Differences

As the world has evolved, it’s become apparent that the popular model of the modern nuclear family — with mom and dad, two and a half kids, and a white picket fence — no longer applies. Families come in all shapes and sizes. This isn’t a bad thing, but when you’re raising children, it can generate some pointed and often awkward questions. How can you teach your children about family differences in a way that will help them become open-minded adults when they grow up?

Start Young

Children start learning about their environment from the moment that they first open their eyes, but they don’t start putting things together until they’ve spent a couple of years on this Earth. Around 2 years old, they will start to recognize that people are different, both from them and from each other. They’ll start learning gender labels and colors that they can apply to skin colors. Around 3, they’ll start noticing physical differences and disabilities and begin to see how people look different from them. Around age 4-5, is when they’ll start becoming fearful of differences. 

The goal is to help them understand that that difference doesn’t necessarily mean bad, especially during those young and formative years. If we can start young and prevent them from developing bad habits where diversity is concerned, it becomes a lot easier to start conversations and answer questions about how families can be different when you encounter them. 

Go Book Shopping

There are a lot of different tools out there right now to help teach young children about diversity, and books are some of our favorites. If storytime is already part of your daily routine, it’s easy to incorporate these new stories into your day, introducing concepts of diversity, inclusivity, privilege and more in an easy-to-digest way. These books can also help you teach concepts like respect and empathy, things that are intangible and can be difficult to convey in a way that little minds will both understand and comprehend.

In addition to all of these concepts, many of these books feature a diverse cast of characters, which is a great way to introduce concepts like race and gender if you don’t live in an area that has a particularly diverse population. You can use videos, movies, and other media to accomplish the same task, but sometimes sitting down together and reading a book is a better way to spend an evening.

Expect Questions

When you encounter something new, it’s human nature to ask questions — and for little kids, that means asking questions about everything because to them, everything is new. When they encounter someone who is a little different from them, questions are inevitable. What you can control is how you respond to these questions. As adults, we’ve been conditioned to get really embarrassed in uncomfortable situations — and if your small child is loudly questioning why someone is in a wheelchair or why they have two moms or two dads, it will probably leave you wanting to crawl into a hole. 

Don’t run away from these questions. Instead, approach them calmly and with as much information as possible. Many of the things that we grew up thinking of as different or strange are becoming more common every year. Surrogacy, for example, used to be something only the elite could afford. Today, it’s more common than ever, with more than 18,400 infants born via surrogacy between 1999 and 2013. If you don’t know, ask. If you don’t have someone to ask, do some research on your own. We have the breadth of human knowledge at our fingertips, in a handheld computer more powerful than the one that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Use it.

Teach Appreciation

There is a lot of discourse online about the difference between appreciation and appropriation when it comes to culture. Appropriation is defined as taking an aspect of a culture that isn’t yours and using it for your own gain or personal interest. Scheduling a photoshoot in a Native American headdress when you are not native would be considered appropriation — not to mention highly inappropriate. Appreciation, on the other hand, is when you make an effort to expand your worldview and connect with people by learning about their cultures. 

Teach your children appreciation for every culture that you encounter throughout your lives. Make the effort to learn about them, preferably from the source. Enjoy their events and rituals if you’re invited to do so, but don’t try to claim them or make them your own. Share your own culture in return. Make it an even exchange of ideas. 

Teach Them Well

We live in a world that is filled to the brim with people — and many of them will be very different from us. Teaching diversity and acceptance should start as early as possible. If we can teach a generation or two this sort of inclusivity, we might even be able to get rid of things like racism…eventually. 

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