My thoughts on teaching kids to love and embrace differences.
My two-year-old son borrowed a book from the “library” at his daycare yesterday, and the title of the book was “It’s Okay to Be Different” by Todd Parr. This book is filled with colorful pictures, listing almost all the situations or conditions what would make a child feel “different”, which delivered a very simple and positive message:
I loved the book, as this kind of positive and uplifting message is exactly what we needed in this troubling adult world. A recent tweet from former president Obama became the “most liked tweet” for quoting Nelson Mandela’s wise words promoting love against hate.
In the tweet he quoted, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Alongside the tweets he posted a photo, which was what captured the essence of this message and what touched my heart deeply. Children see no colors until later when they are taught to do so. As a mother, I witnessed this every day at my son’s daycare, where diversity is the norm and kids just play together as friends, regardless of their gender, color or religious believes. In school, they are just independent individuals, not a person from a certain group. This made me ask myself,
How do we teach kids to love and create a better world? Is it better to teach them to stay indifferent to the differences just like what they’ve been doing as young toddlers, or is it more helpful to teach them about the differences, and how to deal with the differences? Is it really OK to be different?
I am not a psychologist or sociologist, who is probably more qualified to answer this question. I am only going to state my opinions based on my personal experience, my knowledge of this world, and my love for my child as a mother.
What if we do not teach them about the differences?
I often envision a world where everybody stays as innocent and childlike as young kid. Everyone loves each other without bias and discriminations, regardless of their gender, race or backgrounds. Isn’t it a peaceful and beautiful world?
However, as much as I loved the purity of this world, I do realize that as long as there is civilization and temptation that comes with human nature, this kind of utopia doesn’t exist and is not realistic. The reason for children to be so pure and innocent is mainly due to the lack of information and knowledge about the world. They are not aware of the history and the burden that comes with it. They do not understand the uniqueness of each individual, their specific needs, and the possible conflicts that come with it. They do not understand what culture means and how different culture can shape people’s values, believes and behaviors. There is an old Chinese saying which says “The less you know, the less you fear”. And it’s not hard to understand that fear sometimes comes with hate.
Now here comes the next question: Does it mean that it’s better to stay innocent, in order to avoid the fear and hate? My answer is No! The learning process is exactly how we grow and how the world evolves. As parents, our job is to guide our children to understand the differences, to conquer their fear with more knowledge and experiences, and to have empathy and an open mind toward people who are different from them. We need to teach our children the truth of love. Then they would learn to truly love themselves and each other.
When we are in love with someone, we often say that “I love who you are!” But this is actually a lot easier said than done. Naturally we all feel comfortable and easy to be with someone that is similar to whom we are. But nobody is 100% the same (not even for identical twins). So how do we deal with our differences?
In order to stay in a relationship, some choose to look away and pretend the differences don’t exist; some try everything they could to change the other person or even to change themselves to make the relationship work. However, this would only lead to bigger problems in a relationship, and it is not what we should be doing when we truly love someone.
First, true love starts with acknowledging the differences, to admit that we are all different. Next step is to learn to appreciate the differences. The reason is so obvious: It’s the differences that make us who we are and make us special. The end of the day, isn’t it the key reason for us to fall in love? The last step is to accept and live with our differences, and at the same time, to generate more positive energy by focusing on what we have in common.
I believe this theory about love not only applies to grown up couples, but also applies to our children when they try to build healthy relationship with the others at playground or at school. It will also help them to build self-esteem as well as respect and empathy toward the others.
Is it REALLY OK to be different?
This question seems like a no-brainer at this point. Of course, you would say, it is absolutely OK to be different, for the reasons that we’ve stated above. However, is it REALLY the case in the real world that we are living in right now?
I would say this statement is true, but it’s not telling the whole story.
We, as humans, are social animals. We naturally have the need to fit in and love the feeling of being loved and accepted. This is especially true for young kids as they are still in the stage of learning about the world by behaving just like the others. This is how they learn to walk and talk. They learn about social norms by mimicking the others around them. So how can we ignore this important factor and just tell our kids that it’s OK to be different? At least for me, I think this kind of incomplete message might cause confusions, which could lead to self-doubts, rebellious behaviors or even bullying in social settings.
As adults we all know that “being different” is not something easy to be done. Especially as an Asian American, I understand that “feeling different” is something my son is going to experience sooner or later. Our job as parents is to prepare our children for the world and teach them to push limits and be their better selves. So instead of simply telling our kids “It’s OK to be different”, I would suggest to say the following to our children instead:
1) “I know you want to be just like them!”
This is the first step we need to take to acknowledge their needs to fit in. They need to understand that it is normal for us to want to be part of something, to be accepted and loved by as many people as possible.
2) “Everyone is a little different, and you are too!”
The second step is to help our children to explore themselves and their true identities. Ask them questions to help them think about what makes them different from the others? This important step is to increase self-awareness, which is the key for self-esteem.
3) “It is OK to be different, that’s why our world is so colorful!”
The third step is when we address this statement to our kids. We help our children to understand that it’s not only OK for themselves to be different, but also OK for the other people to be different. We teach our kids to have an open mind and learn to respect the others’ differences. We let them know that the differences are exactly what have made this world a wonderful place.
4) “Remember, if someone doesn’t like your differences, it is not your fault!”
The last step is a final boost for our kids to build self-respect and understand the true meaning of love. Not everyone sees eye to eye. After we teach our kids how to respect the others, they need to also know that not everyone deserves their love and respect. This is not to teach them hate, but to teach them a way to self-protect and self-improve.
The end of the day, life is short. We can’t afford to waste any time on the ones who just don’t know how to respect. Our kids need to know that sense of belonging is an important human need, but being able to get along with everybody is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary. We need to teach our children that if they ever encounter someone who doesn’t know how to appreciate their uniqueness or even to attack them for being different, they should simply ignore the ignorant people or voice out against unfairness and discrimination, but remember to take the high road in their heart, because they deserve better.
After all, I just want to tell my dear son that the world is a colorful place for a reason. Everyone, who knows how to love and respect individual’s differences, can find a group of people that are just like him or her. They would accept and love you for who you truly are. So embrace your differences and enjoy the journey!