Inclusion means to value, appreciate and accept others for their differences. Diversity enriches our lives and challenges our perspectives. However, despite talk of diversity, it often seems that people polarize into homogenous like-minded groups, including children, who learn early on to include or exclude others. Twenty percent of children experience bullying, but the number rises to fifty percent for special needs children. The greatest lesson we can teach our children is simple: no one is out. We are all in.
Children learn from parents—you can teach inclusion right at home. Here are five simple ways to do so:
1. Multicultural Games and Toys
Buy dolls that represent various cultures and ethnicities from around the world. When children play with multicultural toys, they view their world as filled with diversity. They ask questions. Explain to them that people look different in various parts of the world but are the same inside. For example, I Never Forget a Face by Eeboo uses multicultural faces and can be a great way to start conversations with your children about inclusion.
2. Watch TV Shows and Read Books with Diverse Characters
Sesame Street is a standard of diversity, and the newest Muppet, Julia, is autistic. Big Bird helps explain how to calm Julia when she becomes upset. Introduce children to television and literature with characters diverse in ethnicity, culture and ability. Before a child gets to school and finds an autistic or other special need child in his or her classroom, meeting someone like them in a book lets children see that every child has a place among us.
There are a lot of wonderful books featuring children with special needs. For example, Rules by Cynthia Lord shows a girl helping her autistic brother, and she learns how to befriend Jason, a boy in a wheelchair who communicates with words on cards. Freak the Mighty pairs an intellectually challenged boy and a physically challenged boy who befriend one another and use each other’s strengths. Evil Speaks, book one of the Warriors and Watchers Saga, shows that blind, deaf, paraplegic and other teens can save the world.
3. Create Parent-Child Games That Explore the World
You can introduce computer skills and foster curiosity about the world through made-up games. For example, play “Explorers.” Buy a large journal with lots of blank pages and world flag stickers or country stickers. Put two chairs in front of the computer, like you’re entering a car, plane or space ship. And zoom—you take off! Pick a place or let the child choose on a map. Take a virtual trip to India, Madagascar, Japan or another state in the US. Choose one place and look at pictures. Print a few for your travel journal. Make sure to print some with children’s faces. Discover a few fun facts about each place—this is not in depth research. Later, make a recipe together from that place or find a nearby restaurant that serves Indian food, Asian, Peruvian. Let your child dazzle people with their new knowledge.
4. Dance to Music from Other Lands
Dance to Indian sitar music, Peruvian flutes, Native American songs, or African drums with your child. Learn a word or two of a foreign language—like how to say hello. Watch a dance performance from another country—dance is a universal language. You and your child can imitate the movements.
5. Encourage Conflict Resolution
When children disagree, too many parents interject to decide the outcome or hand out punishments. Put the two children in conflict on the same sofa. Let the children know you’ll return in fifteen minutes, and they must explain what happened, how it made them feel, and how they resolved the conflict. If you return and they have not spoken, give them another fifteen minutes. (And you can walk away, sip your coffee, and catch up on reading).
My three millennial daughters could not leave the sofa without discussing their problems. Once they understood this, they shouted for my return in five minutes, having already resolved the conflict. This single parenting technique creates children who communicate, mediate and appreciate one another despite their differences. When out in the world, they will know how to listen, communicate, and collaborate with diverse people.
Children whose home-life introduces them to a diversity of perspective, ethnicity, culture, and to people of various abilities, feel at home in this multicultural, multifaceted world. Diversity at home leads to diversity in life and, ultimately, toward harmony in society.