Children and Cultural Sensitivity

We would all like our children to grow up feeling included and loved, in a world free from discrimination and the pain of rejection or exclusion. But the reality is we live in a world where racism and other forms of bias do exist and they very well might face them in their own lives.

Bias can be an issue for even the youngest child.
Many of us might like to believe that young children are completely unaware of bias in the world they live in. But the truth is that children as young as 2 can be aware of differences such as gender, race, ethnicity and disability. At this age, they can also become sensitive to both the positive attitudes and negative biases attached to these aspects of identity, as reflected by their own family or community as well as by the world in general. Young children develop what professionals call “pre-prejudice”, which presents itself in the form of misconceptions, discomfort, fear, or rejection of differences in those around them. These types of feelings can develop into real prejudice if parents and other adults do not take action to support the child through discussion and teach them by example.

What children learn during the preschool years from family members, caregivers and other adults in their life will greatly impact how they will come to value, accept, and comfortably interact with diverse people.

That fact that children recognize these differences is not a bad thing—it’s actually very natural. It’s also an indication that as parents we can begin—even with a very young child—to model positive values concerning the worth of all people and respect for differences.

This is not always an easy conversation. But it needs to happen.
We know that discussions about discrimination, racism and bigotry can be extremely difficult to navigate, even for adults. Because these are such tough issues, parents often feel uncomfortable teaching children about cultural diversity. For example, when a child points out someone who looks different than them because they are in a wheelchair, a parent might try to stop a child from saying anything at all, but this tendency to not talk about differences can reinforce the idea that these differences are in some way negative.

Instead of closing down the discussion, open it up. Provide a safe place where your child can ask questions and feel confident enough to talk about their thoughts. Listen to and answer your child’s questions about themselves and others. Don’t ignore questions, change or avoid the subject, or reprimand your child for asking—these responses suggest that they are asking about something that is considered “bad”.

How do I explain prejudice?
The Anti-Defamation League provides a great, simple explanation for parents and children. They describe prejudice as “attitudes or opinions about a person or group simply because the person belongs to a specific religion, race, nationality, or other group. Prejudices involve strong feelings that are difficult to change. Prejudice is pre-judging. A person who thinks, ‘I don’t want (so-and-so) living in my neighborhood,’ is expressing a prejudice.”

The fact of the matter is that children will most likely see prejudice—even in its earliest forms—at a young age. So your responsibility will be more about teaching your child how to react to that bias rather than simply explaining it. Much of what your child learns will be based on what you model for them, so take a moment to consider your own experiences, fears and assumptions. Think about what words you use to describe your own culture as well as others. Consider the group of adults you interact with on a regular basis. Are you modeling cultural sensitivity and appreciation for your child?

Age matters.
A child is never too young—or too old—to begin a discussion with them about cultural diversity. The challenge comes in finding the right way to talk about it depending on the child’s age.

Preschool: Between the ages of 2 and 5, children begin to become aware of physical differences among people, as well as become curious about these differences, such as gender, hair color and other physical attributes. It is also in these years that children pay more attention to these differences and begin asking questions about them, such as “Where did I get my brown eyes?” By the time children are 4 years old, they are often aware of biases directed against aspects of their identity. Be sensitive to children’s feelings about themselves and immediately respond when they indicate any signs of being affected by biases.

By 5, a child can begin to understand the use of categories and want to know where they themselves fit. This can be a critical time to introduce different cultures to children, when they are learning what differences exist and how react to them.

School children: Between 6 and 8, children begin to understand that their ethnicity is not changeable. They are just beginning to realize that groups of people take actions for and against different racial and cultural communities. This is when role modeling can have an even greater impact, as they are more influenced by significant adults and peers in their life. This is also an excellent time to focus on your child’s own self esteem and self worth. A child who feels good about himself is less likely to feel the need to show disrespect or hate towards others.

Tweens: Around 9 years old, children begin to develop a more sophisticated understanding of culture, including how history, geography and politics can affect a society. From this age on, children are often more capable of talking about culture, race and bias. At this point, having a child speak from a dominant and non-dominant perspective, in a sort of role play, can be effective in discussions about bias.

When something happens.
Discussions about discrimination and prejudice often come up for families when a particular hate crime or event occurs in their community. As adults, we can be deeply disturbed by these events and often struggle personally with how to react. At the same time, our children are often looking to us for reassurance and even explanation. These steps can help:
1. First, review what actually happened. Children over age 9 are usually aware of headline news. Be sure you all understand the facts of the incident. For younger children, do not give specific details. Be careful not to frighten them.
2. Next, share your own perceptions and emotions in response to the event. Without lessening the significance of an event, remain calm and try to convey perspective of the situation to your children. When it comes to younger children, the ADL suggests asking children if they have any questions first to judge what they need from you.
3. Tell your children that they are not alone. Many others—adults and children alike—have the same concerns and are having the same discussions.
4. Finally, calm their fears. Remind them that organizations such as the police and FBI deal with these crimes, and that while events like these do happen and can be hard to understand, we are predominantly safe and live in a free country.

Opening up new worlds.
Here in the United States, minority groups will become majorities in just a few decades. We are lucky enough to live in a country rich with many cultural heritages—take advantage of that luxury! There are many ways to teach your children—mostly by example—to appreciate differences among cultures.

  • Find children’s books showing children of various ethnic backgrounds, using words in different languages, and telling different cultural stories to read with your child.
  • Tell stories about people from your ethnic group of whom you are especially proud. Include people who have stood up against bias and injustice. Storytelling and folk music are particularly effective ways to inspire exploration and understanding in children.
  • Join a playgroup or other parenting group—in a different neighborhood or school, if necessary—that provides your child with opportunities to meet families of different backgrounds. Consider your own interactions as well: show that you value diversity in the friends you choose and in the people and establishments you choose for various services, such as your doctors, merchants and other service providers.
  • Visit cultural festivals, museums and other places or celebrations where ethnicities are celebrated, including your own.

Parents today have never had a greater opportunity to raise children in an exceptionally diverse society, reaping the rewards of rich cultural heritages and valuing all kinds of people. But fear and discomfort can prevent people—adults and children alike—from appreciating that gift.

As parents, we can raise our children to value one another and benefit from this increasingly diverse society. It’s not always easy, but by teaching them to value diversity and be proud of themselves, we open a discussion that too many adults refuse to have. By modeling in our own lives, we can teach children to respect and value people regardless of the color of their skin, their physical abilities, or the language they speak.

Remember, all aspects of parenting can be tough, but finding help doesn’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! For more information about talking with children about bias and teaching cultural sensitivity,visit the SCAN website at