The early years are the time to begin helping children form strong, positive self-images and grow up to respect and get along with people who are different from themselves.
We know from research that children between 2 and 5 start becoming aware of gender, race, ethnicity and disabilities. Parents are the strongest role model for this learning. Kids learn so much more by watching what you do or what you say when you think they aren't listening than when you tell them how they should act.
They also begin to absorb both the positive attitudes and negative biases attached to these aspects of identity by family members and other significant adults in their lives.
If we want children to like themselves and value diversity, we must learn how to help them resist the biases and prejudices that are still far too prevalent in our society.
Bias based on gender, race, disability or social class creates serious obstacles to all young children's healthy development. Your child may not voice it, but they all have a fear that if that person is being treated differently, and in a not-so-nice way, that they won't measure up for some reason and get the same treatment.
In order to develop healthy self-esteem, they must learn how to interact fairly and productively with different types of people.
Naturally, children's curiosity will lead them to ask questions: "Why is her skin so dark?" or "Why does he sound funny?"
We may hide our own negative feelings, or hope that children simply won't notice, but our avoidance actually teaches children that some differences are not acceptable. We must face our own biased attitudes and change them in order to help foster all children's growth.
We need to answer children's questions with an objective answer that is suited to their age.
Here are some ideas that you can use:
• Recognize that because we live in a society where many biases exist, we must counteract them, or else we will support them through our silence.
• At home or at school, give children messages that deliberately contrast stereotypes by providing books, dolls, toys, wall decorations, TV programs, and records that show men and women in nontraditional roles, people of color in leadership positions, people with disabilities doing activities familiar to children, and various types of families and family activities.
• Show no bias in the friends, doctors, teachers and other service providers that you choose, or in the stores where you shop. The same applies to how you speak to or treat people in service positions such as a waitress, bus driver, the janitor at school or people who wait on you in the store.
• Make it a firm rule that a person's appearance is never an acceptable reason for teasing or rejecting them. Immediately step in if you hear or see someone being bullied and you can safely do so.
There are some great short videos on the Parenting Counts website that demonstrate just how much young children learn by watching you everyday - www.parentingcounts.org - they really hit home with most of us.
- Shirley Ritter is the director of Kids First. "Parent Talk" appears on the first and third Saturdays of the month. The column is the result of YouthZone, The Buddy Program, Family Visitor Programs, Kids First and Roaring Fork Family Resource Centers teaming up to provide parents with information and resources about strengthening family relationships.