In our travels, we have seen our fair share of unexpected and we have smelled more than our fair share of surprising. Recently, we were walking through a food market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, when my oldest daughter (age six) conveyed a most profound understanding:
“Mom, when we walked through the market, I saw something that – to me – looked disgusting.” [She went on to describe, in vivid detail, the items she saw that she could never imagine eating.] “But I would never say it was disgusting, because the people here eat it. To them, it is normal. If I said it was disgusting, that would be disrespectful to their culture.”
Encountering difference is one of the surest ways to reveal our unchallenged assumptions and biases. Without experiencing different we take for granted that our own ways of living are normal, and we unconsciously begin to measure everyone else by our own arbitrary, culturally constructed standards.
But purely encountering difference does not equip children with the skills to negotiate difference with respect.
In my work with young children, I have worked to prepare them for a wide world, one filled to the brim with perspectives as vastly different from our own as I could possibly imagine.
Nurturing Perspective Taking Skills
- Drawing a two-year-old to the tears on her friend’s face after she hit him with a block. “Look at his tears. I bet that hurt when you threw the block. Let’s see how we can help.”
- Providing a rich dramatic play area with lots of hats and props to help children take on new roles.
- Modeling respectful language. “Instead of ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘It’s yucky,’ you can say, ‘I don’t care for it.’ The person who made it might feel sad if you called it yucky.”
Engage Tough Conversations
Why is her skin that color? Why do his eyes squint? Why does she use that stick for walking? Children are full of questions that make us squirm because of our own culturally constructed conversational taboos. When we engage in questions of difference and discuss them with respect, we model cultural sensitivity for our children.
Foster, “I Wonder Why?”
One of the best questions children can ponder as they approach difference is, I wonder why? Asking a question of wonder rather than evaluating or judging someone who is different is a powerful and respectful posture.
Fostering wonder happens in thousands of natural ways in a young child’s life:
- I wonder why Curious George decided to hide behind the tree?
- I wonder why the ball kept rolling up the ramp?
- I wonder why the flowers close when you touch their petals?
- I wonder why the air smells like cookies?
- I wonder why the Burmese wear long skirts, even the men?
- I wonder why the Japanese take their shoes off outside restaurants?
What characteristics do you think are important for children in managing differences?