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Now Is the Right Time!
Children are constantly noting differences in the world. Parents and those in a parenting role can support their 3-year-old child 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 3-4-year-old just made an uncomfortable comment in a store about someone who looks different,
- you want to teach your child how to appreciate differences,
- you want to be intentional about helping your child be respectful, inclusive, and kind in a diverse world, or
- you might 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, and race. Three-to-four-year-olds may focus on differences like gender, skin color, body size, language, and other attributes they can see or hear.
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 develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others.
Research shows that children are thinking about differences between people and how they should respond to them from a very early age. However, three-to-four-year-olds 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
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 helps build and strengthen your relationship.
Why Talking About Differences?
Three-to-four-year-olds are noticing and asking about differences among people. Not allowing your child to ask questions and talk about these differences can lead to feelings of fear, distrust, and shame. Talking about these differences helps your child develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Talking about differences between people in positive and non-judgmental ways doesn’t divide children 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.
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 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
- 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 speak up for others.
This five-step process helps you and your child in talking about differences together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. 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 are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Three-to-four-year olds are naturally curious and will actively notice and point out differences among people as they are exploring and learning. Getting your child’s input when talking about these differences can support your child’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, you
- are letting them know that you are open to talking about all kinds of differences, even if those conversation may feel uncomfortable at first;
- 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 might receive from others that talking about differences is not polite or accepted; 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?” If they struggle to identify differences, offer some suggestions. You could stand together in a mirror and say, “Do you 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 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).
- When reading books to your child, look at the images of people and ask your child what they notice about the people that make them similar and different. Ask, “What do you notice?” and “What are you wondering?” If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe similarities and differences, consider naming what you notice and then leaving plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas. You could say, “I notice that both of the children have dark hair and dark skin.” “I notice that one person is wearing glasses and the other person is not.”
You don’t need to wait for your child 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 develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Teaching can help your child 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 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 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 to respond?”
Children learn first through modeling. If you feel uncomfortable when interacting with people who are different from you, your child will likely pick up on those cues and model your behavior. Formulate new ways of interacting that model what you want your child to mimic when they are with people who are different from them.
Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is experiencing.3
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort and show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences and are still developing a feelings vocabulary. They are learning to understand what their big feelings mean and how to manage them.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- In their social play, 3-4-year-olds can create exclusivity by focusing on one and ignoring another. They have the capacity to learn inclusivity with adult guidance and encouragement.
- 3-4-year-olds are beginning to notice differences including culture and race making it a critical time to discuss inclusion and the essential nature of different perspectives in order to learn.
- 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Expose your child to people and experiences that are different from your own family. Talk about those differences and focus on the positive experience of engaging with people, foods, music, and languages that are new to your child.
- At home, provide books, dolls/toys, and other materials that give your child a chance to see people that are different. Dolls/action figures that have different skin colors and physical abilities, music that represents different cultures, and TV programming that celebrates differences are examples.
- Consider checking books out at 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.
- Encourage your child’s questions about differences between people. It is likely your child will ask a lot of questions that start with “Why?” especially when they are curious about differences. “Why does her skin look different?” “Why does that person sound different?” “Why is my hair curly and your hair is straight?” Encourage their curiosity by letting them know it is okay to notice differences and talk about them.
- Asking “Why?” for a 3-4-year-old is their way of exploring their world and learning about themself and others. It is okay if you don’t know the answer to their question. Acknowledge your child’s curiosity, offer age-appropriate information, and talk positively about what your child has pointed out. For example, if your child says, “Why does that person have dark skin?” You could say, “That is a good question. Let’s talk about that. Everyone has skin color. Some people have lighter skin color and some people have darker skin color. They are all beautiful.”
- Your child 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 question in a positive and non-judgmental way. For example, if your child points to a person using a wheelchair and asks “Why is that person in that chair?” You might respond to your child 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.”
- Use person-first language. Person-first language is a way to describe a person’s differences that names the person before labeling the difference. For example, instead of saying “the disabled person,” say, “a person who has a disability.” Instead of saying “a black person,” say, “a person of color.” Your child is listening to you and will start to mimic the language you use.
- 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 is hesitant to play with someone who looks or sounds different than they do, ask questions and then support your child by offering encouragement. “How do you think they would feel if we invited them to play? I bet they would be happy and excited to be invited to play with you. Let’s go over and say hello together.”
- If you hear your child say something like, “He talks weird” or “She looks funny,” spend time talking with your child 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 learns what would be more appropriate.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child 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 works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’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, make introductions and involve your child 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.
- Provide opportunities for your child to meet and interact with other children 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.
- Pretend play together. Allow your child to explore roles, characters, and situations that are different from what is normally expected. For example, it is okay when boys play dress up and girls play with toy trucks. It is okay to have stuffed animals play with toy cars to show that different toys can play together just like different kids can play together.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
You are teaching your child 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 playing and 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 is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’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 joining in the group that is playing a new kind of drum.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like “You seem worried about talking to someone who speaks differently. I’ll hold your hand so that you feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child 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 is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child 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 to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’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 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 played with some new friends 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 is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Notice when your child 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.
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. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children 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.