When I was younger, I had severe acne on my face. I was also a teaching assistant with six-year-olds. One day, a girl came up to me and, without malice, said “My brother looks like you.” The teacher started to shout at the girl. I said, “No, she’s not being horrible.” I then explained to the girl that we all have hormones and sometimes they go wrong and that can mean some people have a lot of spots. I let her stroke my face to show her there was nothing to be afraid of, and she went back to her painting. I have had several friends with visible disabilities. These friends were more than willing to talk to children about their conditions when children approached them in supermarkets, but they also had to face the embarrassment of the children’s parents.
Children are naturally curious, so it is best to answer questions about difference or to raise the subject of difference with children. This could mean searching the internet for black dolls or action figures, or books whose main characters are children of colour or who have a disability, or who have one parent or two mothers. A lot of education material in schools now uses diverse characters. The last school I was in used Ten Town to teach children how to count from zero to ten. King One is a white man, Tina Two is a white woman, Freddy Four is a black man, and Fiona Five is a mixed race woman in a wheelchair, and she is Ten Town’s fitness instructor who plays tennis, swims and works out. I thought this was a great way to teach children about people who are different from them while teaching them how to count.
There are other ways to teach children to accept difference in our everyday lives. If you have an elderly relative in a care home, as long as it is suitable take your children. Elderly people love meeting children, it brightens their day, and it shows children that older people, disability and dementia are not monsters to run away from. When you go to Chinese or Indian restaurants, take your children. A lot do chicken and chips and pizza for kids and are welcoming for families. However, the best way is to simply live our lives. Most of us speak about other people with respect and kindness, and children pick up on this. Society has changed so much in the last thirty years and so most of us have different friendship groups and diverse friends. With so much international travel, most of us know people from different racial and cultural backgrounds to our own. Most of us know someone who is LGBT. Most of us know someone with a chronic illness or long term physical or mental health condition.
Children’s first influence – and most important influence – is their parents or guardians. Children look to their families for answers and how to behave and we need to model peaceful behaviour for them and be ready to answer their questions.
Catherine Hume is a social care worker specialising in mental health who also writes in her spare time. Some of her fiction can be found at http://catherinehume.wordpress.com.