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How to prepare your young child for differences, and teach them to embrace diversity

Pediatrician says there are 3 keys to fostering the values of acceptance and inclusion in your family

By Rachel Téllez, MD, MS, FAAP
September 12, 2017

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It’s a situation that happens almost inevitably in every family – including mine:

You’re at the grocery store with your 3-year-old when they outstretch their arm, point their finger at the man picking up milk across the aisle and say (at what seems like the top of their lungs), “That guy is in a wheelchair!”

It’s embarrassing. And you have absolutely no idea of what to do – which makes it even more uncomfortable.

A lot of us grew up in an era where we tried to make a case that everyone is the same. We swept difference under the rug and tried to say that “we are colorblind” to it. Because of that, we don’t know how to talk about difference and diversity.

But, indeed, we are all different. Everybody is unique and special and important in who they are.

So when your child sees difference and talks about it, that’s OK. In fact, if your child (by the time they’re three or four) hasn’t brought up that they’re seeing differences, you as a parent should actually make a point to bring it up.

To me, there are three steps to fostering the values of acceptance and inclusion in your child:

  1. Expose your kids to difference.

    It’s key to start doing this by preschool age. You usually are spending more time with your kids when they’re this age compared to when they start school. That makes it a prime time for talking and introducing them to what they’ll encounter in the coming years of their life.

    Acknowledge to yourself if your kids are indeed experiencing differences in their day-to-day life at this age – or if they are not. Do they have exposure to kids of different races, ethnicities or religions? Have they met people who have a disability, visible or not? Do you know any families with different family structures than your own?

    If the answer to those questions are “no” or “kind of”, I urge you to seek out opportunities that will change your answer to a confident “yes.”

    Find out what cultural fairs, concerts and museum exhibits are happening around town, and check them out as a family. Also be purposeful when you’re reading and watching movies or TV.

    Make it a point to choose stories with characters who might not look, sound, act or move like your kids. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend exploring As a parent myself, I use this website all the time. It helps you judge how appropriate the media that your kids are coming in contact with is. And, it has dozens of lists that identify specific books, apps, movies and TV shows that can be used to teach your child about a variety of topics and values. (What’s really great is that it also sorts these lists by age.) Here are a handful of ones I think you’ll find helpful:

  2. Talk about difference. And keep talking about it.

    It’s really important that we resist the urge to shush our kids when they bring up difference. Shushing sends the message that the topic is taboo (even though it’s not) and makes your child feel ashamed. It will cause them to stop talking about their feelings with you, and keep them inside instead. It’s when thoughts and emotions become internal that we start developing biases. (And sadly, as you know, much of the violence we see today in our world is based in biases.)

    Instead, encourage your child to describe what they’re seeing, what they think about it and how it makes them feel. The first conversation you have is going to be the awkward one. But once you establish that it’s OK to talk about differences, the follow-up talks get easier. They just become part of your daily life, and that’s where you want to get. When your child starts seeing how their friends treat others and what beliefs other children hold, you want them to share those things (and what they themselves are believing) with you. And if you’ve set the groundwork for open conversation, they will.

    So, going back to my opening example:

    What should you do when you and your child encounter a man in a wheelchair at the grocery store?

    First and foremost, acknowledge that, yes, he is different. But also expand the conversation (reading off the man to judge if you should have this talk right in front of him, or if you should move it to the side).

    Talk with your child about how being in a wheelchair might affect the man, and also about who he is in our world. Point out how he’s at the grocery store shopping, just like your child and you are. Show your child that the milk in his cart is the same milk that they drink. And, if the man seems like he may be receptive to talking, ask your child, “Should we go chat with him and see how he’s doing today?”

    When these situations come up in our family, we talk briefly in the moment, and then we follow-up on what happened again later. Often that means a conversation at dinner that gets the whole family talking. It’s our job as parents to ask questions that bring the conversation to the next level and encourage our kids to talk more.

    “Why do you think it is that he might be in a wheelchair?”

    “What if there was a kid at school who was also in a wheelchair?”

    “What if your friends at school were bullying or being mean to that kid and saying he couldn’t play with them or with you because he looks different?”

    Oftentimes kids already know the answer to these questions because they’ve been taught it in a different format. They’ve already learned basic rules at school and how to treat people. But it’s important to help them know how to stand up and say, “He’s a kid just like me and you and we’re going to play with him.”

    In my experience, kids grasp the concept even better if you make time to talk about the specific things that make them different from others. For example, I will say to my son, “You know, your sister is really good at writing, and you’re really good at inventing things. What do you like about yourself that’s different from her and from your friends? What do you think is really fun about your sister, or about your friend from school?” When your child identifies those things, they tend to more easily see that difference is indeed what makes them special.

    Finally, a note on your child’s developmental stage:

    Remember that even though older kids, teenagers and adults are able to talk about these topics on a more complex level, younger children are not. State things simply, and be open to answering lots of questions.

  3. Role model appropriate reactions and interactions.

    Each of us has internal biases, as hard as they can be to acknowledge. (After all, we were all raised in different ways and exposed to different things.) We need to be honest with ourselves that these biases exist. And we need to be aware that they can affect our reactions to the people we come in contact with.

    Our biases are why we need to be so purposeful in how we interact with people. Our kids do notice when our reaction to someone is different. And they will mimic those reactions. So we need to work hard to be friendly to everyone. And we need to make a point to always use positive language that’s not offensive.

    We also need to be hypervigilant of stereotypes.

    There are plenty of them that play out in the media. And when we see them we need to call them out. We need to be specific about what they are, so that our children can learn to identify them themselves. And, we need to model how to speak up (and out) against them. We need to verbalize how stereotypes can make us and others feel. Similarly, if Grandma (or another relative or friend) says something that’s biased or offensive in a family conversation, we need to give assurance that it is fine to make a comment about how what she said is not OK. If you brush off what Grandma says, your child learns that the way to deal with these kinds of remarks is to simply ignore them. That’s not a lesson you want to teach. What you do want to do is role model what it looks like to stand up for what’s right in all situations. Because it is the skills you role model that your child picks up and practices themselves.

As a pediatrician I’ve worked with diverse patient populations. Some of my patients are Latino children, some are African American and some are white. Some – like my own two children – are a blend of multiple ethnicities. Some come from well-to-do families, and some are from families living in poverty. Some of my patients have a disability. Others are a family member to someone with a disability. Not all of the kids I see in clinic have a mom. Not all have a dad. Some have neither, some have two of each and some have parents that don’t look like them – whether that’s because they were adopted or because there’s simply not a strong family resemblance.

Diversity is broad – and those examples don’t even cover the half of it. Preparing your child for our diverse world isn’t about giving them a laundry list of differences they might see. Rather, it’s about being intentional in the conversations and interactions you have with your child and with everyone else.

It’s easy to presume that it’s the white, economically stable child with a mom and dad that’s the one who will be seeing differences for the first time when they start school. But that’s just not the case. No matter what our background, we all need to be preparing our children for encountering and accepting differences. And to do so, we need to be purposeful.

About Rachel Téllez, MD, MS, FAAP

Dr. Rachel Téllez has practiced pediatrics since 1998. She began working at Park Nicollet Clinic- Brookdale in Brooklyn Center, MN in 2017 and was drawn to the job in part due to the value our organization places on diversity and inclusion. Dr. Téllez believes there is much more to each child than what she sees in a clinic setting, and because of that, she’s committed to trying to understand each of her patients in the setting of their family and community. She sees her role as a pediatrician as being a partner to families in advocating for the best interests of their children. Earlier in her career, Dr. Téllez did clinical work in Mexico and El Salvador. She speaks Spanish fluently, as does her husband, who grew up in Mexico. Outside of work, Dr. Téllez plays the violin and is a swim mom to her children, Maya and Javier. When not at the pool, her family enjoys a weekly game night, traveling and time outdoors.

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