My whole life I have been fascinated with other cultures and the beautifully creative ways the human race has come to meet our similar needs in such varying ways. This interest lead me to study cultural anthropology as an undergraduate, and then when I went on to get my masters in teaching, helped inspire my thesis topic- how to get rid of prejudice in the classroom though the use of children’s story books. I loved studying this topic because it combined my passion for cultural differences with my other passion- teaching kids. Even better, my findings were something I actually used every year I taught in my classroom and now use with my own children. I spent a year doing research both in books and also in my student teaching classroom and my findings in both areas were powerful- and so easy to employ in the classroom and also at home. With the current events surrounding race in our country, I felt the need to share my research with you guys so that I can hopefully help combat the injustice in our nation in a tangible way.
Basically- prejudice is taught, and it begins young. Children as young as 3 and 4 are aware of racial differences and are already starting to develop attitudes (whether positive or negative) about people different from them…and by age 12 their beliefs on race are fairly fixed and are difficult (though not impossible) to change (Feeney & Moravcik, 2005). They pick up how to feel about others from their parents and other adult caregivers as well as their teachers, so it is our job from the get-go to be actively teaching them to embrace differences, to listen to others with empathy and to stand up to racism if they see or hear it happening (and that means we need to do the same thing in our daily lives.)
The best way to do this is to have a multicultural friend base if you can. Much of racism comes from a fear of the unknown, and if a child can interact with people from multiple races and cultural backgrounds, they will no longer be unknown or scary to them- they will be friends. If you don’t have a rich multicultural friend group, I found that reading books to children that include various races and cultures is the next best thing. We all know well developed characters in books can almost seem like real people to us (any other Harry Potter fans out there who feel like you kinda know him?). A good story makes a personal connection with the reader, causing characters to become almost as real as people the reader knows and interacts with in real life situations, making them an excellent way to bridge the gap between people just like us and people who may be different (Feeny & Moravcik, 2005).
So what do you DO? You find good quality multicultural books (read- ones that avoid stereotypes), you read them to your kids all the time (not just during certain times of the year like Black History Month, although that should be celebrated too), and you use them to spur conversations that encourage love, acceptance, and empathy towards other people. I also found that highlighting similarities first is beneficial rather than pointing out all the ways we are different. If we start with commonalities when teaching about others, our children will be less likely to see them as different and thus fear, distrust, and stereotype them (Feeny & Moravcik, 2005). We also need to purposefully and intentionally address the history and present condition of racism with our children rather than glossing it over or trying to protect them (Dong, 2005).
You can easily do this starting at infancy- simply by reading books to your little that have people who look different than the people baby is most likely to see or spend time with. There are several board books out there with multicultural characters in them, but these are a few of my favorites:
When your child hits toddlerhood you can share more lengthy multicultural books with them either by getting them from your local library or by adding them to your home library stash (I prefer owning the good ones myself because then your child will have access to them all the time- and as I said before, embracing different races and cultures needs to be an all the time thing). When your child hits age 3, you can start discussing what they notice about characters in the books- start by pointing out how characters act and feel and live “just like us” even though it may seem very different to you- for example, if you’re reading a book about the Massai they may live in a brick hut and you may live in a house but you both have a home- so focusing on the similarity of how we both have shelter from the weather outside is where you want to begin. You can branch out to how the homes are different, but human needs are universally the same (food, shelter, family, clothing, love) and highlighting similarities will help your child connect with others who may seem very different from them at first. You can also dive into how they think the characters may be feeling when unfair things happen, how they would have responded or tried to help, and how we are called by God to love everyone the same (yes, everyone) because we are all his children. Without further ado- the best part- the books!!! Here are some world culture books I used in my classroom and have also read to my boys that you can start with:
Finally, dive into race and the fight for civil rights by reading and discussing good quality kids’ books that address this topic. Read modern day books too about Americans who come from different backgrounds. The beauty of our country is that nobody comes from the same place- similar ones maybe, but we Americans are so diverse and that is what makes our country so beautifully unique! Read stories about African Americans, Chinese Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, European Americans- everyone! Thisbook listby Pre-K teacher Brittany Smith has some fantastic ones that I recently ordered for my kids, and here are a few of the ones I’ve loved for awhile too!