At a very young age children begin to notice difference. I remember one time when Immy was about 18 months old and we were walking through a shopping centre and she stopped and stared as a very tall man of (I believe) African descent. I think she stopped as she had never before seen a person with such dark skin. He was lovely and smiled and even said a few words to her. Then she waved goodbye and off we went and I am sure she has never really thought about it again. More recently Immy observed a person in a wheelchair and in the manner of three year old openness said, “Why is he in a wheelchair for?” The man’s carer simply and matter of factly answered her question.
It is common for children as young as two to use gender labels and colour names, and for three year olds to demonstrate increasing awareness of gender and racial differences, and differences in people’s ability.
Not only do children begin to notice difference at a young age, they also begin observing what we (the significant adults in their life) value, and our own responses and reactions to difference. And how our children react to, include and accept others affects how popular they are as ‘friends’ to other children. If they are learning these social responses largely through our modeling (as I outlined in this post), our actions are very important to our children learning to be inclusive of others.
So what sorts of things can we do to help our children develop inclusive behaviours?
- I think firstly it is important to view children as competent. Children are not inherently passive, waiting for us to fulfill their needs. They are driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about their world through being an active participant in it.
- All children have different strengths and areas for development. Too often we spend all of our time and energy focusing on what they cannot do rather than celebrating what they can. Focusing on and celebrating a child’s strengths empowers them to feel more confident as an individual when they do face challenges.
- One powerful way of recognising a child’s strengths in a meaningful way is to make them the ‘expert’ in their areas of competence. Saying, ” I saw Tom manage to do that just yesterday. Shall we ask Tom to remind us how he did it?” celebrates Tom’s achievement and engaging Tom as a peer mentor not only helps the child needing assistance but also reinforces Tom’s own learning.
- From birth we compare our child with other children. It is natural and often reassuring for us as adults to do so. But it is not really very helpful to our child, and children hear and observe more than we often give them credit for, so we need to be careful not to speak comparatively about them in their presence.
- Encourage cooperative behaviour rather than competitiveness. It is much better for our children to say, “Let’s do this together and help one another, where shall we start?” then to say, “I wonder who can get finish the fastest. Ready, set, go.” Studies have shown that children who refuse to cooperate are less popular with their peers.
- It is true that every child is different. Every person is different. It is much better to discuss difference with a child as a positive aspect of who they (or we) are. It is difference which makes people interesting and unique.
- Model sensitivity to and respect for other people. Show empathy.
- Maintain consistent expectations for each child when it comes to enforcing family ‘rules.’
- Talk with a child (and truly listen) to better understand their knowledge and theories of social justice issues and how they came to their understandings. Such conversations can begin at two or three years of age;
Child “Jessie is a girl.”
Adult “What makes you think that?”
Child “She wears fairy wings.”
Adult “Don’t boys wear fairy wings too if they wish too.”
Child “No, just girls.”
Adult “But I have seen Sam dress up in fairy wings and he is a boy.”
- When talking with children assist them to challenge bias, prejudice and stereotypes, through questioning and sharing your own beliefs and understandings.
- Encourage role playing and dramatic play. This is how children become more aware of how it feels to be someone else.
In what ways do you encourage your child/ren to be inclusive and tolerant of others?
- Friendship: Developing Sharing Behaviour
- Thoughts on Celebration, Community and Home
- Friendship: To Have a Friend, Be a Friend