We recently celebrated the only United States federal holiday designated as a day of service, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. With Black History Month just around the corner, this is the time of year when many people are talking about social justice, diversity, and inclusion. To help our children become culturally competent, we should welcome these important conversations year-round. Indeed, I want my children to grow up with a deep understanding of the legacy of activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and acknowledge that anti-bias work begins at home. Here are some ways you can model and support anti-bias learning throughout the year:
Read Books with a Range of Characters
The We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) site has a great list of books featuring a diverse range of characters. Read stories with characters who don’t look like your child, have different abilities, or represent different cultures or beliefs. Use stories as an opportunity to talk about how people are the same on the inside and can look or be different on the outside. Offer examples of similarities and differences that your child can easily understand and identify with. For example, “Our family has two kids and two moms, and this family has a grandma and one kid. What other kinds of families can you think of?” As you read, explore how differences make each person unique. Stories are a wonderful way to express interest in others, have open conversations about stereotypes and bias, and model empathy for others.
Seek Out New Sources of Media
In my house, we have reasonably strict parameters around screen time and media use. Teaching media literacy is often viewed as something to address with older children, though there are many benefits to introducing these conversations earlier. When considering which types of media to introduce to your child, be strategic. Even young children can understand that the images in TV, movies, videos, advertisements, and magazines don’t always reflect lived experiences. Talk about the content of the media you and your children consume and the ways in which they might portray people. Point out when you see stereotypes or under-representation. Then discuss what you are seeing and how the ideas and information might inform or impact their views about the world. For example, “Why do you think all of the characters in this show look the same? In the real world, people have all different skin colors, not just white.”
Many wonderful movies and shows depict characters that represent diverse backgrounds and beliefs. My 3-year-old is obsessed with a relatively new PBS show Molly of Denali about a 10-year-old indigenous Athabascan girl living in Alaska. Not only does it have a strong female lead, but the show also has cultural advisors from each region of Alaska depicted in the series. This is just one example of an excellent source of culturally relevant children’s media with many opportunities for rich discussion as you and your child watch together. Check out the article “Diversity in Kids TV: Let’s Tell Stories That Include Everyone” for other movies and shows featuring strong characters from a variety of backgrounds. Common Sense Media is also a great source of independent reviews and information about media literacy.
Model Respect and Empathy
Start by modeling empathy and respect through your day-to-day interactions with your child. Notice their feelings and ask them to share how they feel, offer support in challenging situations, and share personal stories about your own experiences. Consider doing the same with others as well. Your child notices how you interact with people out in the world, from close friends to a stranger in the grocery store. How do you show respect, empathy, or appreciation for friends and neighbors? How do you show care for those experiencing challenges or needing extra support? Children learn best by example—and they are always watching their parents!
Talk About Bias and Stereotypes
While it can be hard to talk about topics like race, class, and injustice with young children, it is actually the best time to begin these conversations. Young children have an innate sense of fairness and are naturally curious about others. Be honest about bias and stereotypes—in an age appropriate way of course! Teaching Tolerance has a great parent guide with resources by age to support these conversations, as well as all kinds of useful resources to use when talking about social justice with your child. Teach your child that it is okay to ask questions about differences. Children are curious about the world and teaching them to ask questions in a respectful way can encourage open-minded attitudes and inclusive behaviors.
I hope these ideas help you and your child learn about the world and the ways that differences enrich our society. Think about ways to celebrate differences as your child begins to explore what makes them and their friends special, and encourage them to think critically about the world through an anti-bias and social justice lens.
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.