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Why Teaching Children to Be Tolerant About Diversity Just Won't Cut It

We need to encourage young children to embrace and celebrate diversity.

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Every classroom talks about how we are all alike but also all different, and special. We acknowledge that even at a young age, children notice people are not the same, but what we aim to have them learn is how not to make judgments based on these differences. In the book, Are We Born Racist, editor Jason Marsh points out that, “We are born with a certain predisposition to fear that which we deem to be unlike ourselves somehow.” In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman cite many studies confirming that children as young as 6 months notice differences in skin color. Yet despite this, 75% of white parents rarely talk about race with their children.

What about other differences aside from race that children notice, which similarly go unspoken? What about children whose families are different from their own? Teachers and parents can’t assume that children do not notice families with one parent, or with two parents of the same sex, or with grandparents assuming the role of parents. What about families that don’t celebrate the same holidays they do? Or friends who do not have new clothes, or who live in an environment far different from their own? What about peers with special needs who can’t walk or hear or see or talk? Or their classmate who hits or screams or flaps when he’s excited? In the new frame, the definition of diversity expands.

Children attach meaning to racial and other differences based on what they are taught by adults, as well as what they learn through their own experiences. When differences are not acknowledged and discussed, negative values can sometimes attach to those differences in children’s minds. As early childhood educators, we have learned that unspoken messages can speak to children as loudly as spoken ones. If a child on the autistic spectrum is flapping his hands and teachers say nothing, his classmates most likely conclude he is strange and should be avoided. It is important that we are clear with our messages to help shape the values children will attach as they learn about the people in their world.

When educators do not acknowledge and celebrate differences in their classrooms, they may unknowingly impose their own cultural and ethnic values on their students.  Not so many years ago it was common practice for early childhood educators to follow a multicultural or “tourist” approach in their classrooms. This approach resulted in celebrating differences only during holidays or cultural events, instead of year-round. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo but never mentioning Latino culture at other times of the year is one example of this approach; Autism Awareness Day programs are another. The problem with programs like these is that they perpetuate, rather than ameliorate, stereotypes by confining them to a special day. We need to learn about the lives of people who are different from the community “norm” each and every day.

Building inclusive, equitable and caring classroom communities requires us to go beyond the song from South Pacific, which showcases the prejudices overtly taught to children by their parents and communities. Children need to be taught explicitly how not to hate and fear that which is different. It may be uncomfortable for parents and teachers to talk about differences, but without the conversation children will make their own implicit associations. 

To move beyond tolerance, and shift our understanding of difference into a new realm, children need to be given opportunities to learn about one another, intimately, so they value what children different from themselves bring to the table. The goal must be for them to accept, not just tolerate differences, and celebrate them for enriching their lives. That will only happen when parents and educators lead the way.

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