Until he was 9 years old, Niko Crawford, of New Market, Maryland, was proud to be a Muslim. But when he started third grade, everything changed. The children in Niko's class that year began taunting his best friend, Mohammed, calling him a "terrorist" and an "Osama lover," and even trying to beat him up on the school bus. Niko, who is African-American and not easily identified as Muslim, stood up for his friend, but he didn't tell anyone about his own family's religion. The teasing continued, though, and eventually Niko came to his mom in tears.
"After seeing how badly his buddy was being treated, my son was ashamed of his religion," says his mother, Piper.
"And he was scared."
Niko's experience is a sad reminder that bigotry is alive and well in our country today—even among kids. We'd like to think that in our increasingly multicultural society, we're raising a generation of accepting, unbiased children. After all, they're growing up in a world where powerful figures come from all ethnic backgrounds, where TV and movie screens are filled with a rainbow of role models, and where lessons in tolerance and celebrations of diversity are part of most curriculums, even in preschool.
Yet old attitudes die hard. "Racism may be less acceptable today than it was a generation ago, but it still exists," says Kerrie Laguna, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pennsylvania. "And kids are quick to pick up on their parents' biases—even if they're conveyed in subtle, unspoken ways."
But just as parents can pass on their prejudices to children, they can also play an invaluable role in teaching them to be respectful of everyone. Here are seven ways experts say you can raise a child to accept—and appreciate—diversity.
At about age 4, children start noticing that some people look physically different from the way they do, and they may begin asking questions such as, "Why is her skin darker than mine?" or "Why don't I have straight hair like that?" "Parents sometimes panic when they hear these questions, but children are naturally curious, and they're simply trying to learn," says Alvin Poussaint, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and coauthor of Raising Black Children.
The best response is simply to explain that people come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Making too big a deal of the question and over-examining differences can signal that there's something wrong with diversity. "The message you want to send is that, though people may look different on the outside, they're all the same inside," Dr. Poussaint says. Use analogies a child can easily understand. Antona Smith, a mom from Lees Summit, Missouri, discusses race with her 3-year-old, Kiden, in terms of ice cream: "We talk about all the people God made—vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch—all different flavors, but all equally good."
Most of us know that it's wrong to use derogatory terms to describe any ethnic group, but the truth is many people slip up from time to time, muttering a racial slur at a bad driver or generalizing about an ethnic minority. And even people who don't articulate their prejudices are still likely to harbor hidden biases, studies show. So explore your own behavior to see what subtle messages you might be sending to your child, suggests Dr. Laguna. Do you laugh rather than protest when someone tells a culturally insensitive joke? Do you lock your door when you drive through certain neighborhoods? Do you mimic ethnic accents to try to be funny? "You may not intend to demean anyone, but a child can certainly get the wrong impression," Dr. Laguna says.
Children often learn to stereotype based on what they see on television, and those images become ingrained early: Even cartoons aimed at toddlers show villains who have foreign names and features and beautiful princesses who are blond and Caucasian. When you see a negative stereotype in the media, point it out to kids and let them know you think it's wrong, suggests Dr. Poussaint.
Sometimes, your child may be the one to make generalizations and say things like, "All the black kids in my school are good at basketball" or "Only the Asian kids sign up for the math club." When that happens, point out that just because some people of a certain ethnicity behave in a certain way, you can't assume that everyone in that group behaves similarly. Try to find examples that defy the stereotype. Let your child know that it's never a good idea to make generalizations about people based on race or culture—even when they're positive ones.
Kids who can put themselves in someone else's shoes are less likely to tease others for being different. Talk to your child about what he thinks it would be like if he were in the minority—for example, if he were living in a country where everyone looked different from him. Ask how he would feel if people were mean to him simply because of the shape of his eyes, what church he went to, or where his parents were from. You can have these discussions with kids as young as 3 and 4 if you keep the concepts basic and the language simple.
Children today are growing up in a multicultural society, and the earlier they become comfortable with people of other ethnicities, the better prepared they'll be for the future. Some families actively seek out diverse communities. "We moved here because we wanted to raise our kids in a town where people of different races, religions, and sexual orientations peacefully coexist," says Kate Newmark, a Caucasian mother of three who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, a town that prides itself on diversity. At age 5, her son already takes racial diversity for granted. "He has friends from all different ethnic backgrounds," she says.
It's harder if you live in a homogeneous community, but you should make a concerted effort to expose kids to diversity. Take them to ethnic restaurants, go to museum exhibits and cultural events, and read books celebrating other cultures.
Treating children with basic respect and dignity is the best way to help them develop self-esteem. "Happy, well-adjusted kids tend not to be bigots," says Peter Langman, Ph.D., director of psychology for KidsPeace, a not-for-profit children's service agency. "Kids who feel like they aren't valued tend to look for targets—someone they deem 'different'—to release their own anger and frustration."
Building self-esteem is especially important for kids who might be singled out for being in the minority. When Piper Crawford's daughter, Samar, 7, wanted to know why her hair wasn't long and straight like her white friends', Crawford simply emphasized the positive things about curly hair. "I told her that her hair stands up on end because it's happy," Crawford says. "Now she thinks her hair is cool."
Last year, Deborah Majerovitz's 11-year-old son got into trouble at school for using the adjectives "gay" and "retarded" as insults in a Mad Libs book. Immediately afterward, she sat him down for a serious discussion. "I told him it was wrong to use terms like that as an insult," she says. "We're Jewish, so I asked him to think carefully about how he would feel if he heard someone use the term Jew in a degrading way."
The bottom line is that you need to teach kids that all people, despite their differences, deserve respect. If you overlook any kind of bigotry, you're sending your child the message that it's okay to feel superior to certain groups. "To raise a tolerant child, you need to help your child learn to value everyone as a human being," Dr. Langman says.