Last week, I gave you some ideas to help toddlers explore and celebrate their own identities. This week I’m going to give you some ideas about how to encourage exploration and acceptance of others through your words and your actions. Remember that repetition, imitation, and trying things out are the way kids learn.
One important point is to be sure to always view people as individuals and never make assumptions about them for any reason. Our children hear everything we say and understand much more than we tend to give them credit for.
Think about the parent or caregiver that says thoughtfully, that woman needs a wheelchair to help her get around instead of the one that moves quickly to the other side of the street and hopes the kids don’t notice. Guess what? They notice. And they get their clues from how you behave.
When we see people we don't know, we can try to understand rather than criticize. And we have to consciously pass these positive ways of viewing others to our children by reserving judgment.
Get out and see the world with accepting eyes. Talk out loud about people’s strengths and challenges. Go for a walk or take a bus ride. Visit a children’s museum in a city. View people as individuals with differences but don’t take the attitude that they are defined by those differences.
Invite people you know to hang out and to read with children rather than to teach them a specific skill or talk about their professions. Encourage diversity and acceptance. Differences are seen in a positive light. Don’t force anything on toddlers but help them feel comfortable by the example you set interacting with people.
I once worked in a campus childcare center with an excellent reputation. A 4-year-old girl named Amelia, with a walker, hearing aids, and thick glasses joined us. She also brought her own aide with her.
The schedule was mostly free play and teachers basically helped children to explore, play and get along with each other. Since Amelia didn’t need any help because of her aide, she was virtually ignored by everyone. And there were a lot of people in that center including volunteers, paid staff, and work-study employees.
I noticed that because the teachers didn’t need to interact with her, the children didn’t see the need to either. So I tried something really simple and it worked. I called attention to the things she had in common with the other children, like enjoying stickers. I noticed that her walker was covered in them.
I started conversations, first with her and her aide, and then brought other children in. They loved identifying the characters on her stickers. And we found out she liked to sing, so we would sing some impromptu songs. The aide would set up the easel to paint and others would ask for turns.
This isn’t rocket science and anyone can do it, but it is intentional and as in this case, entirely too easy to neglect.
Here are some concrete examples of what to say when toddlers have questions about differences:
Good people come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes.
Tessa is Milton’s other Mom. Some families have 2 Moms.
It’s OK to ask Cory’s Dad why his skin is brown.
Milly’s aunt uses a walker to help her get around because her legs work differently than yours.
Sheldon looks different than his parents because he was adopted. He can tell you all about it if you ask him.
Idea # 3
Read Love Makes A Family by Sophie Beer. This should lead to some great questions about how families are alike and different and how awesome that is. After talking about families, you can use some photos to map up some family trees to display.
These ideas are very simple and very necessary for kids today. So don’t be afraid to move forward. We may have
a long way to go but we have to start somewhere and starting with very young children just makes sense.
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Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.