Raising a Child Who Respects Difference

Walk The Walk

Books and festivals are great -- but true respect sinks roots when diversity comes in the form of friends and neighbors. "I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I believe that modeling is more powerful than teaching," says Cynthia Garcia Coll, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Brown University who focuses on the role of ethnicity on children's development and is herself Puerto Rican. "As a parent, if I have diverse friends then my kids will take diversity for granted." Click. My kids do take gay rights for granted; we have gay friends. My son wanted to use a racial slur; we have few friends who are people of color. Surely, there's a link.

If you have friends from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, mazel tov. But if not, and you live in a homogeneous community, then this is where it gets hard. "You need to be purposeful about this," says Lecia Brooks, the director of the Teaching Tolerance program at The Southern Poverty Law Center, and who self-identifies as an African American and a lesbian. "People tend to associate with others who are like they are, who share their worldview, people they're familiar with. Oftentimes, those people look the same racially and culturally. So it takes a sustained commitment to break out of that and expose our kids -- and ourselves -- to something different."

Clearly, the best way to do this is to pick a diverse area to live in and a multicultural school for your children. If these aren't options, consider choosing a place of worship with a rainbow congregation. Find extracurricular classes or sports teams that draw children from varied backgrounds. Take your kids, on a regular basis, to a playground in a more mixed area, if you live near one. Seek out professionals of color: dentists, doctors, teachers. "You may think that's kind of ridiculous, to pick a professional on that basis," says Carmen Van Kerckhove, the president of New Demographic, a diversity-education firm, and a blogger at antiracistparent.com, whose heritage is Chinese and Belgian. "But you pick someone based on lots of different factors. This is just one additional consideration to think about."

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