‘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.