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Now Is the Right Time!
Children/Teens ages 11-14 are constantly noting differences in the world. Parents and those in a parenting role can support children/teens as they make sense of differences among people by talking to them about what they observe.
You might be coming to this tool because
- your 11-14-year-old just made an uncomfortable comment about a classmate who looks different or reports encountering peers who are using mean or aggressive language;
- you want to teach your child/teen how to appreciate differences;
- you want to be intentional about helping your child/teen be respectful, inclusive, and kind in a diverse world; or
- you may feel uncomfortable or worried not wanting to say the wrong thing when talking about differences or wondering even if you should.
Differences among people can include family structure, (dis)abilities, how much money your family has, religion, culture, spoken language, gender, race, etc. Eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds may focus on differences like tone of voice, body language, posture, lack of confidence, and lack of physical coordination. Children/Teens typically have a heightened self-consciousness and sensitivity about acceptance by their peers. They may focus on differences in family beliefs or values, ways of acting, interests, or ways of spending time.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, talking about these kinds of differences can be challenging, but you play an essential role in helping your child/teen develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others.
Research shows that children/teens are thinking about differences between people and how they should respond to them from a very early age. However, children/teens often get very little information about differences among people through direct and honest conversations with trusted adults like parents, caregivers, and family members.1,2 Yet, it’s through those honest conversations that children/teens develop ways to learn from differences and show respect for them.
The steps below include specific, practical strategies and conversation starters to help you talk about differences in positive and non-judgmental ways. Having open, honest conversations about topics that are often hard to talk about with your child/teen helps build and strengthen your relationship.
Why Talking About Differences?
Eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are keenly aware of differences among people, particularly their peers. Not allowing your child/teen to ask questions and talk about these differences can lead to feelings of fear, distrust, and shame. Talking about these differences helps your child/teen develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others and themselves. After all, it’s likely your child/teen will experience the feeling of being judged unfairly for differences. Talking about differences between people in positive and non-judgmental ways doesn’t divide children/teens or make them wary or fearful of one another. It bonds them together as a community and allows them to be more respectful and inclusive. It also creates safety as they feel that it’s okay to show how they are different from others.
Today, in the short term, talking about differences can create
- greater opportunities for connection and trust in each other,
- an understanding that trusted adults can help when your child/teen has questions, and
- a feeling of celebration for all of the wonderful ways that we are all different from each other.
Tomorrow, in the long term, talking about differences with your child/teen
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- provides a firm foundation for speaking up when we or others are being treated unfairly;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- deepens family trust and intimacy; and
- helps them understand their own unique characteristics and how to speak up for others.
Five Steps for Talking About Differences
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen talk about differences together. It also builds critical life skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
Eleven-to-fourteen-year olds are naturally curious and will actively notice and point out differences among people as they are exploring and learning. Particularly, eleven and twelve-year-olds have a newly expanded social awareness in which they are noticing fairness issues in their own community and in the broader world and ways that peers are treated fairly or unfairly by peers or adults. Gaining your child’s/teen’s input when talking about these differences can support your child’s/teen’s curiosity and learning. Asking questions can prompt their thinking and help them understand their own and others’ feelings. In gaining input from your child/teen, you
- are letting them know that you are open to talking about all kinds of differences, even if those conversation may feel uncomfortable;
- are making sure they know that you see the ways that people are different from each other and that you celebrate and respect those differences;
- are countering any messages your child/teen might receive from others that talking about differences is not polite, accepted, or even, shameful; and
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another.
- Ask questions to explore differences and similarities. You might start by asking, “What do you notice is different between you and me?” “I see that I have blue eyes and you have brown eyes.” Or, “I have glasses and you don’t.” Explore similarities as well. “We both have freckles.” “We both have curly hair.” Give your child/teen plenty of time to look for examples and share their ideas with you. Talk about differences and similarities with others in your family as well (e.g. siblings, grandparents). Make sure you observe differences together without making a good or bad judgment about them. This is a simple way to get started sharing non-judgmental observations.
- When your child/teen is reading books for school or for pleasure, talk about the characters involved and how they are similar and different. Ask, “What do you notice?” and “What are you wondering?” If your child/teen is feeling unsure about how to describe similarities and differences, have them tell you more about the story and then leave plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas.
- Ask about friends and classmates and how they get along. You might ask, “Are there any classmates who are teased because of how they are different?” and “What happens to each of your classmates when that happens? How do they feel? What do other classmates do in response? What do you do? How could you be more accepting or inclusive?”
You don’t need to wait for your child/teen to bring up differences among people to start talking about them. Instead, make talking about differences and similarities part of their everyday experiences.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of talking about differences among people is to help your child/teen develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Teaching can help your child/teen grow new skills and behaviors. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Paying attention to how you talk about and interact with people who are different from you and understanding your own feelings and behaviors are great places to start. It will help you understand what your child/teen is learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “How do I talk about people who are different from me?”
- “How do I want my child/teen to talk about people who are different from them?”
- “In what situations do I feel uncomfortable or uneasy when interacting with people who are different from me?”
- “How do I respond?”
- “How do I want my child/teen to respond?”
Children/Teens learn first through modeling. If you feel uncomfortable when interacting with people who are different from you, your child/teen will likely pick up on those cues and model your behavior. Formulate new ways of interacting that model what you want your child/teen to mimic when they are with people who are different from them.
Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child/teen is experiencing.3
- Eleven-year-olds are better able to see from another person’s perspective. They also increase their worries about being liked and may engage in excluding others in order to gain popularity.
- Twelve-year-olds may feel more confident. They’ll seek out risks, and peers will exert pressure and also support. Participating in common activities or sports tends to become more important for acceptance and belonging.
- Thirteen-year-olds can have worries related to their newly acquired body changes. They can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent upon you. They may feel an ever greater sense of judgment from peers and pressure to conform.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act like they know it “all.” Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries. They are gaining interest in others as romantic partners and will have crushes, broken hearts, and worries related to the world of relationships. Differences can be more attractive in a romantic partner than in a friend at this age.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Expose your child/teen to people and experiences that are different from your own family. Talk about those differences including racial, cultural, belief, and perspective differences and focus on the positive experience of engaging with people, foods, music, and languages that are new to your child/teen.
- At home, provide books, games, and other materials that give your child/teen a chance to see people that are different. Choose tv programs, movies, and music that involve people with different skin colors, physical abilities, that represent different cultures, and that celebrate differences.
- Consider checking books out from the library that show people who live in different types of housing, have disabilities, practice different religions, or who have varied family structures. Be sure to talk about differences in an accepting and inclusive way.
- Derogatory terms can begin to creep into your child’s/teen’s language after hearing those words or phrases from friends, peers, or pop culture. Be sure and discuss the offensive words. First, ask, “Do you know what that means?” And then, you could prompt their thinking, “Do you know why a person might be hurt by that word or phrase?” You may discover that your child/teen is unaware of the meaning or consequences of using that language but merely mimicking peers.
- Encourage your child’s/teen’s questions about differences between people. In earlier years, they may have asked “Why?” questions like “Why does her skin look different?” and “Why does that person sound different?” Encourage their curiosity by letting them know it is okay to notice differences and talk about them if they still pose those questions. If they utter judgments about their peers’ character or image, no matter the judgment, look for ways to reframe viewing with empathy and compassion. For example, your child/teen might tell you that a peer is dirty or wearing unwashed clothes this week. You might ask, “Do you really know what’s going on at home? Maybe they are going through some tough times.”
- Use the local or world news to spur conversations about race and culture. Ask, “Do your classmates talk about race or culture ever?” and see what kind of response you get. This age group has learned that race can be a subject to avoid, so it’s important to bring it up and get the conversation started when there are natural opportunities to reflect with them.
- Your child/teen may ask questions about differences among people that seem insensitive or offensive to adults. If that happens, don’t ignore it. Answer your child’s/teen’s question in a positive and non-judgmental way. For example, if your child/teen points to a person using a wheelchair and asks, “Why is that person in that chair?” You might respond to your child/teen by saying, “Yes, that person is sitting in a wheelchair and using her arms to move the wheels so she can come into the room.”
- Stay informed. What is considered acceptable or respectful language may change. For example, the term “midget” is considered highly offensive to describe a little person.4 More acceptable language would be “a person of short stature,” but whenever possible, it would be best to refer to someone by their name.4 It is important to seek out credible sources when learning about what language is appropriate.
- Grow empathy. For example, if your child/teen is hesitant to get to know a classmate who looks or sounds different than they do, ask questions and then support your child/teen by offering encouragement. “How do you think they would feel if we invited them to hang out? Maybe they would feel happy to be invited. You can get started by just going over and saying hello.”
- If you hear your child/teen say something like, “He talks weird” or “She looks funny,” spend time talking with your child/teen about how the words we choose matter. Talk about how describing someone as “weird” or “funny” might hurt the person’s feelings. Also explain why someone may talk differently or look differently than they do. Offer alternative words so your child/teen learns what would be more appropriate.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child/teen to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child/teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child/teen works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s/teen’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence.
- When out in your community and while running errands with your child/teen, make introductions and involve your child/teen in conversations with others (e.g., neighbors, the bank teller, or the grocery cashier). Notice whether the people in your daily lives are different from your family, or if they tend to be similar. If most of your interactions with others are with people who are similar to you, consider seeking out opportunities that would offer more diversity. Try out a grocery store in a different neighborhood.
- Provide opportunities for your child/teen to meet and interact with other children/teens and adults of all ages, races, and cultures. Point out similarities and differences. Talk about how differences help us learn more about ourselves and others.
- Use your family’s media selections to initiate conversations. Allow your child/teen to explore roles, characters, and situations that are different from what is normally expected. For example, seek out movies with main characters who are of a different race or culture and learn about the experiences that may be similar and different. Common Sense Media offers helpful recommendations.
- Sign up as a family to volunteer in neighborhoods or with groups you typically would not encounter. During the service event, initiate conversations with community members who look and talk differently than you. Afterward, reflect on the experience and what you learned.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
You are teaching your child/teen that it is okay to talk about differences among people, ask questions about those differences, and interact with people who are different from them. You are allowing them to practice so they can learn and grow. Now, you can offer continued positive support.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you were having fun with your new friend who is in a wheelchair. It was great that you picked a game that everyone could play.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child/teen is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s/teen’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s/teen’s ear, “Remember how you enjoyed learning about different kinds of foods? Different kinds of music might be fun to experience too. You might enjoy listening and trying out new music.”
- Actively reflect on how your child/teen is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like, “You seem worried about talking to someone who speaks differently. I can go with you so that you’ll feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child/teen gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child/teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child/teen is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s/teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You included a new friend in your group hangout at the park today — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you try that new musical instrument, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You tried a new musical instrument that you had not tried before — love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I noticed you were curious about why our neighbors wear those hats. You were really respectful when you asked them.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Notice when your child/teen tries something new or talks to you about questions they have about differences among people. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
- Celebrate the wonderful diversity that you are realizing in your world.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.