We all know that understanding differences starts at home, but the discrepancies aren’t always represented or apparent under our roofs. Relevant literature indicates that children are aware of differences in other kids based on gender or race as young as two years old. As an example, racial awareness begins with self as a toddler to exploring individual identity and being able to identify stereotypes by five or six years of age. There are, of course, a number of ways in which we differ from each other, and children will gradually become aware of these differences. Awareness of gender differences appears first, followed by awareness of racial differences, and then by awareness of physical or mental, but physically represented, handicaps.
One of the first differences children will become aware of are those of gender. This awareness generally occurs from around 18 months of age forward, and is one of the easiest to attach recognition to. Boys have short hair, and girls have long hair, so children are able to spot the physical signs, and either inquire, or decide for themselves what this separation means. An advantage to this, is that in addition to highlighting the presence of two sexes, parents can also emphasize a vague importance of both genders, minimizing the shock, and bewilderment that can accompany this awareness.
It is hypothesized that if children are surrounded by toys that express color or gender in subtle ways, they take less obvious notice when integrated with their peers. This can be demonstrated through several avenues.
These days, there are literally hundreds of books to choose from for kids, which note and demonstrate what differences look like, and explain their normalcy. Some great examples include: We’re Different, We’re the Same from Sesame Street Books; Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley, and My Granny Went to Market: A Round-the-World Counting Rhyme by Stella Blackstone & Christopher Corr.
PBS Kids offers a handful of great education-based cartoon series for children, which embrace, and highlight culture from a handful of easy-to-digest perspectives. Mixed Nuts, SciGirls, Word Girl, and Plum Landing are all examples of great ways to expose young children to ideas that surround differences, what makes us special, and welcoming uniqueness.
There are a gamut of plaything brands which have developed non-discriminatory items, or even specialized toys that allow children to choose from toys that don’t mirror their own familiar backgrounds. We should encourage our children to play with these things as often as possible, so when they do finally understand that differences are present, they remember how similar the play experience was.
A brief list of companies that endorse or offer these types of play equipment are Constructive Playthings, PlayMobil, and HABA, just to name a few. Little Proud Kid has also worked to curate an array of toys that showcase cultural diversity.
The easiest, most natural way to give children the gift of cultural exposure is through real interactions with kids their own age, who all come from different backgrounds. Schedule a playdate with a family different than yours, or look on meetup.com for scheduled activities with families of all shapes and sizes.
Another easy way to give kids an opportunity to see what life looks like in other cultures, is through museums and ethnic events in your area.