What children are exposed to early on shapes them forever, and that’s certainly true when it comes to diversity and acceptance. At just 6 months old, for example, babies are able to recognize race-based differences. Racial bias can set in once they’re 2. And by the time they’re tweens, many of those biases and beliefs have become “set,” the American Academy of Pediatrics warns.
So parents basically have a decade-ish to fundamentally influence how their children view and value diversity, while living within a broader system in which inequality is rampant. It’s quite a task.
Thankfully, there are tangible, daily steps parents can take to try to move the needle, and one is simply to teach children why representation matters from a young age ― and to offer access to toys, books and media that reflect the awesome diversity that’s in the world (with the understanding, of course, that most parents aren’t toy manufacturers or book publishers or showrunners who actually control the content available).
Representation alone won’t change how children see themselves and others, and experts warn against anything too prescriptive. But here are four easy strategies that can help:
Start by simply talking to your child about representation
“One of the biggest mistakes that I see … is that parents and educators and librarians assume that children are ‘colorblind,’” said Krista Aronson, a professor of psychology at Bates College in Maine and director of Diverse BookFinder, a free, searchable resource on representation in children’s picture books.
“They assume that by introducing this topic to their children through any conversations or media, they’re going to somehow introduce something that they don’t see,” Aronson said. “There is incontrovertible evidence in psychology that that’s just not true.”
Unless kids have a visual impairment, they definitely see color. Children notice differences in gender identity. They can tell if they have a friend in class who has a physical disability or that, say, their BFF has two moms. Glossing over the fact that humans are different doesn’t teach kids to embrace and celebrate difference; it teaches them their parents or caregivers are too uncomfortable to talk about it. That, of course, can send a very clear (but unintentional) message that you think diversity is taboo or bad.
So first and foremost, simply commit to not ignoring difference with your child — and make an effort to point out stereotypes in the books and media they encounter. Which, of course, requires that you notice those stereotypes and inequalities yourself. (White parents, acknowledging whiteness is part of this.)
“Parents have so much influence on their children’s worldview and ways of thinking, especially in matters related to how they treat other people and how they make decisions,” said Jeanne Huybrechts, chief academic officer at Stratford School. “Parents should message to children at an early age that ‘diversity’ is not just a nice-to-have, feel-good goal but is a smart goal.”
Load up on ‘cross group’ and ‘any child’ books and media
One of the best ways to disrupt biases early on is to “bring children together across difference,” which is harder than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, Aronson said.
“Picture books or other forms of media can be particularly important, particularly if you live in a homogenous environment,” she said. “That’s true whether it’s homogeneous majority or homogeneous minority. Research has shown that some of the ways to disrupt this are to read books that depict friends having fun and playing together across difference.”
The Diverse BookFinder calls books like those, which show relationships that span racial or cultural differences, “cross group” books. And parents should consider whether their kids have access to those types of books.
Also consider whether your child has access to “any child” books, which feature characters of color whose race, ethnicity or cultural background is not central to the plot in any way. (The classic “The Snowy Day” is a good example, Aronson said.)
So look at your kiddos’ library: Are there “cross group” and “any child” books that feature children of different races and genders? Children with disabilities and different body types? Ultimately, the goal is to convey the full, multifaceted humanity of people from various backgrounds.
“What these books have in common is that they promote values of diversity and inclusion in memorable stories about interesting characters ― stories that ‘show’ rather than ‘tell,’ thus grounding abstract concepts like ‘inclusion’ in examples of real people having authentic experiences and processing genuine feelings,” said Huybrechts.
Expose your child to books, shows and other art that is about oppression, discrimination — and resilience
While “any child” and “cross group” books are helpful, it is also critical to expose children to books, shows and movies that acknowledge how people from various backgrounds have had to struggle for justice ― and that highlight how resilient people are.
“‘Any child’ books can be a really easy entry point for us as parents … and they’re important. I don’t mean to say that ‘any child’ books aren’t important. But if they’re the only thing you’ve got, then you might want to reflect on your own resistance to other types of stories,” she urged.
So make sure that you are also exposing your child to books and media that directly grapple with injustice. They can be a great tool in prompting conversations with your child about privilege, which can start at young ages since kids understand the basic concept of fairness early on.
Again, Aronson steers clear of offering parents any kind of prescription for their books and media consumption. It’s not like: “any kid” books + movie that directly grapples with injustice = child who embraces diversity. It is complex, and many factors influence how kids see their world. But Aronson said it’s crucial to “interrogate” your child’s library and media consumption, as well as your own.
Let go of the idea that conversations about difference ‘should’ be comfortable
Parents really do have a fair amount of control over what books, movies, TV shows, art and toys they expose their children to, particularly when they’re young. But as Gabriela Livas Stein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and one of the founders of CAMINOS Lab, previously told HuffPost:“The follow-up — and the conversations — are really important.”
Don’t rely on osmosis. Having direct (age-appropriate) conversations about the values reflected back to them in what they watch and read is equally necessary, and those talks should be happening regularly.
If that makes you uneasy, or you have the nagging feeling that this is more natural for other parents, know that you’re not alone.
“It’s not comfortable. It’s never going to be totally comfortable,” said Aronson, who noted that she is a mom and a woman of color. “I’ve been doing this work for 20 years and raising children for 18 years, and it’s still never comfortable for me. So if the thought is that you’ll do it when it’s comfortable, that’s just not going to happen.”
This story is part of a HuffPost Parents project called “I See Me,” a series for parents and kids on the power of representation. We know how important it is for kids to see people who look like them on the biggest stages, including politics, sports, entertainment and beyond. Throughout February, we’ll explore the importance of representation in teaching kids about difference, acceptance, privilege and standing up for others.