Encouraging Diversity Early in Life

When I first came to the United States, I was struck by the diversity of its people. I grew up in Russia and Ukraine among a very uniform population of Caucasians with similar religious beliefs and customs, but my little boy Nikolai has a different path in front of him. He is 50% Russian and 50% Kenyan, part of this society that has provided freedom and shelter to many nations from all over the world. I want to enable him to appreciate and navigate this environment in the spirit of inclusion. How can I make him proud about our family traditions and respect people different from him?

It all starts very early when an infant looks at picture books with different types of ethnicity and diversity. I, as a parent, had a hard time finding diversity in infant books, so I used lots of postcards and magazine cutout pictures. The author Roger Priddy uses photos that are very inclusive of different types of people. And the Global Fund for Children also has two books about diversity for children: Global Babies and American Babies.

As the child gets older, he or she can now learn about their specific family culture. Families should be encouraged to read books that describe the traditions and customs of the culture or multiple cultures they represent. For example, in Russia Santa Claus is called Father Frost. He has a granddaughter, “Snegurochka,” a snowwoman who travels with him delivering presents. During this past Christmas celebration Nikolai asked me, “Where is Santa’s granddaughter?” And the question opened the door for me to explain the ways our family beliefs might be different from those here in the United States. There are many books that introduce culture through storytelling or simple explanations. Visit your local library to find books that describe holidays, from Hannukah to Kwanzaa, and different kinds of food, from spaghetti to bee bim bop. You will find toddler books inclusive of all races to books for older children that describe the accomplishments of diverse people. A positive role model’s influence should not be underestimated.

Expose your child to diversity in concerts and public events. Nikolai thoroughly enjoyed Taiko drum performers as well as Spirit of Uganda child performers. What I consider the most valuable experience is admiring other cultures and seeing them at their best, which predisposes one to good attitude towards the new and unknown.

When children get to preschooler age, their favorite questions are often “why?” and “what?” Do not ignore them. Even if the question is uncomfortable, it can be an opportunity to teach them about different types of people in the world. Tell the child you will talk about it later of it is inappropriate at the time, but then be sure to come back to the topic. One day we were in supermarket and Nikolai saw a man in motorized wheelchair with a head support. He started asserting loudly “Mommy, what is it? Can I ride that?” I got very embarrassed, thinking he was asking inappropriate questions and drawing unwanted attention to the man, and I tried pulling him away. But by doing so, was I suggesting that a disability is shameful and something not to talk about? The disabled man taught me a lesson I will never forget. He came up to us and explained to my child his disability and why he is using a chair and let him push some buttons. He told me that I need to answer my child’s questions directly. So now Nikolai just confirms in a matter-of-fact way that sometimes have differences in their mobility. This lesson can easily extend to addressing race and ethnicity with your children as well.

The main thing to remember is that children begin like a blank sheet of paper, but we write out on it with our examples and actions as parents from the very beginning. Do not ignore your values or heritage, or those of others, even in the movies. It is not all “Hakuna Matata” (or “no worries” in Kiswahili, the Kenyan national language), when it comes to diversity matters; children look to you for guidance and a foundation for a bright future.