Diversity is a topic that is on a lot of people’s minds these days. Let me first say that the purpose of this article is not to single-handedly solve racism, but to explore a small part of what creates a person who appreciates all the variety that God created. Many people feel that children do not see color or difference. This is possible in some cases, though not likely. It is evident in the way that children reflect themselves and others in the artwork they create that they do note differences in appearances, including skin tone.
My eleven-year-old niece recently used an app to make emojis of each member of our family. We are an African American family with a wide range of skin tones. The first thing I noticed was that she gave every family member a skin tone that closely reflected their real-life complexion. (Though everyone was sporting a summer tan!) I was not the same shade as my niece. My niece was not the same shade as my mom, and my mom’s emoji even had her freckles! Our face shapes and hairstyles were different. You could even tell that we were different ages. These cartoon images she created were adorable reflections of the detailed differences she saw even in the people she is closest to, so of course she must observe them in others she encounters as well.
From earliest childhood, one of the ways that children explore and learn about the world is by comparing and contrasting the qualities of everything and everyone that they encounter. We learn shapes and colors in early education for this very purpose. We also learn to use our senses to describe everything from our favorite flavor of ice cream to our favorite stuffed animal. So it is natural that we also learn to process people by noting all of their unique qualities as well.
My sister shared a story of how when my youngest nephew was about three, her family was walking in a mall, and they saw a life-sized poster of an adult male model who bore a striking resemblance to my nephew. The adult model shared many qualities with the three-year-old. Both were African American, fair-skinned, with a clean-cut hairstyle, and had similar face shapes. When my nephew saw the poster, he exclaimed, “Mommy, it’s me!” (It was a very humorous moment for the family.) Clearly, he looked at this poster and made a comparison to himself. Though the image in the poster was different in that the man in it was “grownup,” my young nephew could still “see himself” in image in the poster.
This recognition implies an awareness of physical features, and yes, most likely skin tone, even at a very early age. It stands to reason that if a child of three can note similarity to self, he or she can also note difference to self. But why then, people ask, do children not seem to hold the same biases as adults?
Though socialization definitely plays a role, I think part of the difference in the way that children experience diversity from the way that adults experience it is based on what difference represents for a child. For an adult, difference is sometimes translated as difficulty or something to overcome. For young children, every difference encountered is an opportunity to learn. This is probably because they are curious and also in the process of learning so much.
Yet, somewhere between childhood and adulthood, that ability to appreciate all the tiny details that make difference special can sometimes become dulled, and worse, distorted into views that grow into behaviors and beliefs such as bullying, bias, or racism.
As They Grow Older
So how do we help children keep that ability to see, appreciate, and embrace difference that we have from our earliest days? As children grow up, it is important to keep the topic of diversity open. Help them hold onto their appreciation of difference. Ways to do this include the following.
- Let children know that God created and loves all people and that we are called to love as God loves.
- Remind children that all people were created in God’s image.
- Remind children that God created each person to be different for a reason because God’s creation needed variety.
- Talk with children about diversity.
Discussing Diversity with Children
Let children know that it’s OK to see difference, and encourage them to see difference as something to be recognized and celebrated rather than ignored. At the same time, encourage them to find common ground with people from whom they are different. Most importantly, let children know that it’s OK to discuss diversity in kind and considerate ways, and be willing and open to conversing with your children about diversity. Remember that it’s OK not to have all of the answers to their questions and to say so. In those cases, make seeking answers and learning something that you do together. In this way, you not only lead by example but also ensure that children seek answers from appropriate sources.
Other Ways to Help
- Encourage children to learn about people who are different from them racially, ethnically, or culturally, and facilitate that learning.
- Participate in events that celebrate and educate about diversity and history.
- Make sure children are exposed to diversity in what they read, watch, and play with.
Helpful Children’s Books
- Who Is My Neighbor?, by Amy-Jill Levine & Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
- A Rainbow of Friends, by P. K. Hallinan
- Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox
- Same Difference, by Calida Garcia Rawles
- Same, Same But Different, by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
- God’s Dream, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams
The Bible is a good starting point for helping children understand that diversity is good and something that comes from God. Share stories that may be helpful to them. Here are some examples.
God Creates People: Genesis 1:26–2:4
After God created the earth and sky, God created living things, including plants and animals of all different sorts. However, God wasn’t done creating living things on earth. God also created people, both male and female. Note that God created more than one type of human being because God saw that God’s world needed more than one type of person to thrive. The Bible tells us that God created people “in God’s own image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that two types of people, who were different from each other, came from God and were both like God. The Scripture goes on to say that God gave the people he created the tasks of caring for the earth and creating a family. At the end of this day of creating, the Scripture says that God saw God’s creation as “supremely good.” We are all a part of that first family that God created, which means that all of us are supremely good in God’s eyes.
Babel: Genesis 11:1-9
This is the story of the origins of languages and cultures. After the Great Flood, all of the people who lived on earth spoke the same language and were very close to one another. Because they were so close, they wanted to stay together and sought to build a name for themselves. They began working together to build a city and a tower that would reach into the sky. The Lord came down and saw what the people were doing, and decided to mix up their languages and disperse them all over the earth. This might seem like a strange thing for God to do, but God’s creation is an ongoing work. God showed a love for diversity when God created so many different plants and animals. In this story, God continues to create and show love for diversity.
God wanted to teach the people to learn to love and work with people who were not exactly like them. Speaking different languages and being dispersed caused them to become culturally different. This ultimately sets the stage for all of the people coming back together in the future at Pentecost, despite their differences in language and culture. At Pentecost, they would be united through the Holy Spirit, rather than through language, a city, or a tower.
The Bible shows us that God created and values diversity. As God’s people, we are called to follow God and value and nurture diversity as well. At the same time, God wants us to find common ground and connection through loving one another as God loves us. Reassure your children that all people are created, loved, and valued by God and that we are called to love and value one another as well.