Giving Your Child the Gift of Inclusivity

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Jessica Borelli, associate professor of psychological science, offers three practical ways to instill principles of equity and inclusivity in Psychology Today. An excerpt:

1. Help children have conversations about diversity and race. This will help build children’s vocabulary, understanding, and comfort with the topic.

  • Convey that these topics are extremely important ones to think about and discuss. Talk about these topics with children in a way that is calm and full of patience. Express understanding to your children that everyone is on the path to learning how to be more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
  • Communicate that these are topics about which we are always learning new information that helps us become more sensitive to people, so there is always room for us to improve and grow in the ways we act and speak. Even though we can try to learn as much as possible and behave in the best way possible, we can’t ever know exactly how our behavior is affecting someone else, so when in doubt, we can always ask the other person. Finally, when we have said or done something that we regret, something that has offended someone, or something that we later learn was unkind, we can make amends for that action by apologizing to the person and trying to learn and understand why what we did hurt them.
  • Our biggest enemies in this battle are things like denial (that racism, sexism, etc. are problems), as well as guilt, anxiety, or other feelings that prevent us from talking about these issues or from critically examining our own or others’ actions.

2. Encourage an understanding of what it feels like to be “othered." This will help children develop compassion for the self and empathy for others when they experience racism or discrimination.

  • Everyone has had the experience of being an “other” at one point or another in their lives, even if only for a moment or an hour or a day—that exquisite pain of being singled out and feeling different than one’s group is like no other feeling. 
  • The pain of social exclusion has been likened to the physical pain we feel—that’s how real it can be—and it is processed in similar brain regions.
  • Being able to tap into those feelings can help kids who haven’t experienced racism have a teeny tiny inkling of what it might be like to deal with racism—except that instead of feeling like an “other” for a moment or an hour or a day, they might instead feel like an “other” every time they get to school or work or the store.

3. Express a family value of inclusivity. This will help set the expectation that in your family, you prioritize a certain type of behavior, that which includes all perspectives and invites people from all different backgrounds, cultures, communities, etc., into the conversation.

  • There are two main ways families can create shared values—one is by “showing” (or doing) and the other is by “telling” (or stating the value). Showing the value leaves a stronger imprint on children than simply telling the value, especially if the showing contradicts the telling. Children can sniff out hypocrites better than bloodhounds. 
  • If you want to create a sense of the shared value of inclusivity, make a point to learn about traditions and holidays from different cultures each year, take time to read books, watch movies, and visit with people and historic sites—for instance, one year learning about American Indian traditions and holidays, the next year learning about African American history. Watch portions of both Democratic and the Republican events, asking your children to find things to compliment and things to criticize about the speeches at each. Encouraging children to be respectful of speakers on both sides of the aisle is a way of conveying a family value of embracing and respecting diverse perspectives.
  • You can help your children have a positive identity by speaking highly about your cultural, race, and ethnic group membership and by yourselves being role models from your children’s own group. This behavior can coexist with a culture of inclusivity, so having pride in one’s own traditions never means putting down another group’s traditions.