‘Why Does She Look Different?’: Teaching Diversity to Preschoolers

By Gena Kittner

While riding in her stroller the other day, Ellie held on to the sides and said “Whee! This is my wheelchair!”

Unsure of what to do or how to react, I stopped and asked her what she meant and how she learned about wheelchairs. Instead of answering, in true 3-year-old fashion, she repeated the wheelchair line. So I told her this was her stroller and wheelchairs are for people who need “a little extra help.” Teaching Diversity to Preschoolers and Young Children

I have found this is my go-to phrase when explaining to Ellie certain things we’ve been doing lately — like how we bought Christmas toys for kids we didn’t know, but whose parents “needed a little extra help.” Or why we put money in the Salvation Army kettles or donate toiletries to a local shelter.

But I realize I’m going to have to up my game and find a better response. Ellie’s a smart girl who is starting to notice that people look and act differently. And she’s going to want to know why. And, chances are, she may not pick the most appropriate time or volume of voice in which to inquire.

This got me thinking about a thread from a mommy group I follow on Facebook. Awhile back, a member posted, saying her 3 1/2-year-old is near the age where she notices people who look differently than she does — be it size, race, disabilities, etc. The mom expressed wanting to raise her to be loving and accepting of diversity; however, she wondered how best to respond to these questions when asked in public.

Bingo. I found many of the suggestions about teaching diversity thoughtful and creative. Here are some solutions that you can try when your child asks about differences:

  • Explain that everyone different and “that makes the world beautiful and interesting.”
  • Respond to your child’s inquiries and observations about differences with, “I know! Isn’t that cool?” This tip came from a mom who said her daughter comments on “everything” indiscriminately.
  • Try showing kids this short Elmo video featuring Lupita Nyong’o. During the video they talk about all of the great things about their skin and that skins comes in all different colors and shades.
  • Read People, an award winning book that will help your child understand that it’s OK to be different.
  • Check out the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, which includes a chapter about race. The mom in the Facebook group said, “the main point is let [children] ask and try not to ‘hush’ what we think are embarrassing questions. Acknowledging for kiddos is different than judging. We know about judgement — toddlers are just learning.”

These are great tips, and I’d be curious to hear some more. How do you answer your children when they ask pointed, but perhaps embarrassing, questions about diversity in public? How do you respond in private?

Gena is a Midwest transplant living in TucsoGena Kittnern, Arizona with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Ellie. When not killing scorpions, Gena writes about food and family. Follow her on Twitter @genakittner, and check out her previous posts on Mommy Sanest.

13 thoughts on “‘Why Does She Look Different?’: Teaching Diversity to Preschoolers

  1. I must admit, toddlers openness about everyone’s differences is one of their most endearing traits to me. I love how it shows that difference doesn’t mean worse, it literally just means different, and they want to know why or how that happens.

    • Thanks Mlle. It’s definitely a hard one to answer, especially when you’re not expecting the question! I think your “genius” answer is genius. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a fascinating and really important topic. My almost-3 year old keeps me on my toes with questions, so I know it will be important to talk about difference even more in the coming months/years. I, too, struggle with the best way to approach this — I do know that I want to really talk about it — race in particular is difficult for adults to talk about, but I think it’s so important to teach children about difference in order to avoid repeating societal patterns of prejudice. How to do that, though, is another story…Thanks for these ideas!

  3. Hi Gena! Great post!
    I don’t have kids yet, but I feel like watching a lot of Star Trek growing up helped me. I know that sounds weird, but “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is a really beautiful thing. As for how to explain that a three year old level, I think that it’s helpful to go with “We’re all different, and that makes us all special,. We can teach each other new things that way. Isn’t that cool!?!”
    The trick is to be excited about the differences and highlight how they are a good thing. That way that will be the primary takeaway. 🙂

  4. This is such a great post, especially since my almost 4 year old is so observant and asks questions about everyone we encounter. He already seems to understand how wheelchairs are helpers for people to get along, but I’m sure he will have tons of other questions when exploring the world.

    • Thanks Amanda! Life just keeps getting more interesting as we move into pre-schooler age and the kiddo become more observant and inquisitive about the world around them 😉

  5. I find this topic amazing, & I seriously love how you explained yourself. I think children’s innocence in asking questions is a beautiful thing, & it really takes great parents & family members to guide their way of thinking. Love this!

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