How to Teach Kids to Embrace Differences

Whatever your background is, whether you’re Caucasian, a visible minority or of mixed ethnic background like myself – no one wants to feel marginalized or alienated from mainstream North American or Canadian culture. While some may find comfort in being part of a larger group or community, others who have grown up straddling more than one culture can feel as if they’re isolated or on the fringe – never belonging to one tribe. This can be particularly difficult for children who, while they may identify with one group, can feel excluded from others. 

As parents, it’s important for us to teach our kids early on not to define themselves or others by superficial terms. While it’s easy to categorize people — by gender, culture, religion, ethnicity or other groupings – this only serves to limit our perception of everyone. We may not even be aware of it but this labeling process can create invisible boundaries between people and certainly doesn’t allow us to see beyond a one-dimensional surface. Now more than ever, we need to replace negative and hurtful stereotypes and instill our children with acceptance, tolerance and inclusiveness for all people. Grownups can help by implementing several different strategies. Start with small steps and make this a fun voyage of discovery for your kids.

Here’s a few easy tips for embracing differences:

Reframe Your Focus

It’s difficult to be generous and accommodating of others when you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin. And growing up in today’s beauty obsessed world, it’s hard to look past the mirror. With unlimited access to celebrity culture and images of perfection, it’s no surprise that scores of teenagers are rushing to get plastic surgery – from nose jobs, eyelid lifts, lip injections and more – to correct prominent features or what they view as blemishes. Before they move to this extreme stage, acknowledge and address self-confidence issues from an early age, and explain to children that it’s OK to be different from everyone else. Picture books that celebrate being different looking, like My Father’s Nose, can be an easy introduction.

The key here is to introduce as many frames of reference as possible so that as your child grows, they will discover that there are countless opinions and views about beauty that can co-exist together. Once your child learns to accept themselves as they are, it will be easier to extend that view to others.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We’ve all heard the ancient proverb. Just spend a few hours in a museum or art gallery and you’ll see how true this statement rings. Visit portrait galleries to get a sense of just how much images of beauty have changed over the years. Art is very subjective and depends upon who is doing the viewing – there are so many other alternate and valid perspectives to consider. And it’s also worth exploring how different cultures view beauty. Older kids can check out the Atlas of Beauty and get a first-hand look at photographer Mihaela Noroc’s recently documented images of women around the world.

 It’s a Small World, After All

Become your own cultural ambassador. What is your background? Begin at home by providing insight on your heritage and where your ancestors came from. Even if you’ve never thought about it before, are there some great customs, family traditions, clothing or foods that you can share with the whole family? If not, perhaps it’s time for a little sleuthing. Consider doing a DNA test or searching through popular ancestry and genealogy sites to find out more. You may even be surprised with your results. By giving your children this immersion in their identity, you’re providing them with a solid foundation to build on.

After you’ve embarked upon your own personal journey, you may want to branch out and visit foreign lands in the comfort of your own backyard – no passport required! Ethnology, which involves the fascinating study of different cultures, has become the latest craze. There are many great resources out there waiting for you to tap into. Seek out local ethnic, religious, heritage or cultural centres. Most are open to the public and offer fun events, classes, summer camps and other family programs. This can also be a great way for you and your children to meet others with similar backgrounds. Most large cities will have annual parades, festivals, bazaars and street fairs celebrating everything from Pride to Chinese New Year. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to broaden your horizons and experience new things without ever having to leave home! On the other hand, if you’re planning to travel, be sure to check out exciting happenings from one end of the country to the other so you can get a taste of specialties and local customs wherever you find yourself. 

Take a Trip to the Buffet

Everyone needs to eat. What better way to partake of another culture than trying different dishes? If you’re fortunate enough to live in or near a large city like Toronto, there’s a multicultural smorgasbord waiting for you to enjoy. Just about every type of ethnic food awaits you in local neighbourhoods such as Little India, the Chinatowns – yes, there’s more than one, to Greektown, Little Italy and more. Be flexible and keep an open mind when introducing new foods – it’s really the same on the inside, just a different presentation on the outside. Try it, you’ll like it!

Open the Gateway to the Galaxy

Some people are squeamish about trying new foods, in the same way, others are wary of people from different cultures. The best defense for fear is knowledge. Understanding, insight and knowledge go a long way to dispelling unfair generalizations or misconceptions about other groups of people.

Head to the library with your kids – or if time is limited, search online after hours in your pajamas! Look for books on other cultures – or move beyond to study other animal species or the planets. By delving into the worlds of animal behavior or science fiction, you can encourage your children’s thinking to evolve to a more global perspective. There is a treasure trove of information at every level from introductory to advanced. Let your interests guide you. For example, if you enjoy watching movies, look for foreign films. Music lovers can find a wealth of world music available and there are also stacks of foreign magazines waiting to be perused.

Enlist school support but be prepared to jump in. For example, when my daughter was in grade school she noticed that there were very few Asian children. She mentioned it to her teacher, and before I knew it, I was enlisted to provide a brief show-and-tell session on all things Japanese. My daughter happily acted as the assistant and we had fun bringing in some Japanese books and toys while sharing some fun facts about our culture.

Celebrate the Unique

As you explore different cultures, religions and foods, encourage your child to keep a positive attitude. While we are all human, each of us have our own specific gifts and talents that define us as individuals. Talk to your child about what is special and unique about them, and explain how they will continue to grow and shape their character over time. 

In contrast to North American’s concept of perfection, the Japanese have the term wabi-sabi, which can be loosely translated as simple beauty. This age-old aesthetic finds beauty in both nature and the imperfections of things. To get the general idea – think of a one-of-a-kind, handmade, artisanal piece versus a mass-produced, cookie-cutter model. Certainly, machine-generated perfection has its appeal for some things but then so does nature, in all its captivating glory, as it showcases the transient, ever-changing beauty of the seasons.

We all have a role to play in this world, so why not make it a good one? Let’s celebrate different skills, different looks and different ideas. For what matters is the type of people we are and how we treat each other – not the size of our nose or the colour of our skin. As Shakespeare famously wrote in his play As You Like It, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players….” Remind your child that we can all be the hero of our own stories, warts and all.

References and Resources:

  1. Teens and Plastic Surgery
  2. Demand for plastic surgery growing among Canada’s youth
  3. The meaning and origin of the expression: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
  4. The Beauty of Imperfection: The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi
  5. Wabi-Sabi and Understanding Japan: A Philosophy and Aesthetic as Worldview
  6. Wabi-Sabi: The Art Of Imperfection
  7. Wabi Sabi Your Life: 6 Strategies for Embracing Imperfection
  8. Speech: “All the world’s a stage”

Author Bio:
Suzanne Hartmann is a key staff member at Vitality magazine, and in her spare time runs her blog Old Sage Hands. She lives in Toronto with her husband, daughter and two adorable bunnies. Her articles have appeared in consumer publications such as Style at Home, Canadian Living and The Toronto Star. She has just released her first picture book, My Father’s Nose, which is available on Amazon.

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