Our house is a head full of curlies. Wonderful, kinky, coil-y curls (except my husband—the addition of our two curly-headed tots has caused the subtraction of most of the hair on top of his head).
While I’ve had my own journey of embracing my natural hair (which wasn’t always easy when mainstream media, corporate America, and some schools have said natural hair isn’t beautiful or professional), as a mom of boys I hadn’t given much thought to teaching them about loving their hair. But when an incident at my son’s preschool caused him to be the center of attention, I had to find ways to address him and his class.
One day, children encircled my son, placed their hands on his head, and played with their fingers in his curls, describing what they thought of it. Not only had they invaded his personal space, but they made my shy and typically reserved little guy feel like an exhibit because there was something different about him. Since he’s the only black child in a predominately white preschool, I’m not surprised that his hair drew their interest. Anticipating incidents like this are part of the everyday considerations lots of parents have to make when selecting child care, on top of the general worries of simply finding quality early childhood education. Yes, innocently, kids will be kids. But these are the kinds of early impressionable moments that shape the way our children grow up and learn to interact, play, and work with friends and strangers who may look or sound different from them or have different abilities. So I turned my indignation into action.
That night, I went online to search for children’s books with diverse characters, storylines, and cultural perspectives that I could share with my son’s class. I saw this as an opportunity to broaden the students’ exposure to an array of characters, real and fictional, and help the school incorporate lessons of acceptance.
As a media-literacy advocate, I know there is power in deconstructing media messages and teaching our children to question narratives. Historically, American media (and its global exports) has been pretty one-note in its depiction of what’s considered “normal,” while promoting stereotypes about people of color and other marginalized communities. When you grow up seeing superheroes, love interests, and commanders-in-chief that look like you or reflect your family, anything that deviates can seem foreign and easily objectified. From basic stock photos to color choices for inanimate good and bad guys in video games (yes, that’s also a conversation we had to have with our preschooler—everything black isn’t bad), the images our kids see teach them how to interpret the world and value themselves and others.
I also know that media won’t fix everything or end racism. To be honest, I can’t even say that the issue has been fully resolved at our child’s school or that we won’t face something like this again with our younger son. But I do believe that, because media plays such a huge part in our lives and society, exposing kids to stories and images that represent people from varied backgrounds, places, and cultures is one way to make a change that can have a ripple effect in our unconscious perceptions of each other.
Like every parent, I want my kids to be loved and accepted for the cool little individuals they are. But more than 50 years later, I and many others are still dreaming of the day our children are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin (or the type of hair they have). As media and technology play a role in our kids’ lives at younger and younger ages, they can serve as great ways to begin conversations about culture, respect, and embracing differences. There’s still quite a ways to go, but I offer these tips that I’ve used with my own family as a few ways to utilize media and technology as tools to help young learners understand and appreciate the differences that make all of us special.
Teach kids to be proud of what makes them unique. Help your child celebrate the characteristics—from physical traits to cultural traditions—that make them special. Although it’s not always easy, but finding toys and media that reflect what your child sees in the mirror goes a long way in boosting their self-esteem and confidence. Use these books to introduce kids to different cultures.
Explore different cultures. One of the greatest things about media and technology is the ability to transport us almost instantly to another place or time. From books set in history or fantasy to games that allow kids to globe-trot in the comfort of their own homes, there are many ways to engage in cultural exchange (but not appropriation) with your children. Kids of all backgrounds can benefit from understanding the motivations, points of view, and cultural and historical issues of people unlike themselves. Check out these sites that help kids appreciate differences.
Reinforce what makes us the same. The best way to remove the distance between ourselves and “other” people is to find common ground. Exposing children to diverse stories and images can be a powerful counterbalance to the narrow standards of what’s acceptable and to negative stereotypes that are often promoted in media. This has a twofold benefit of helping kids see difference less as a novelty and focusing more on familiar, shared experiences. Try these culture-appreciation games.