How to Explain Visual Differences to Kids

You’re at the park and your four year old daughter sees a parent and child with a skin color different than her own. She looks at them, then looks to you and innocently asks, “Why do they look different than me?” Your three year old son is waiting with you at the grocery store checkout line and notices a man in a wheelchair. He points to the wheelchair and directly asks the man, “Why are you sitting in that?” As much as you would probably prefer your child to ask you complicated questions at home, odds are that your little one doesn’t have a filter and this won’t be the case. Your daughter and son mean no harm, but are recognizing visual differences in others and curious about the world around them. Are you prepared for these questions and more like them? How will you answer? Let us help you consider your responses.

Don’t ignore your child’s inquiries

Let’s face it. Kids can be loud and direct, and both of these attributes combined can be embarrassing to you as an adult since you know it’s not polite to point and talk about another person. Your child won’t learn to filter what comes to mind and out of his or her mouth until later in life. Your child’s innate curiosity will sometimes get the better of you, mom! While your first reaction when a question regarding another person’s features, attire or disability arises in public may be to hush your child, try not to shut him or her down. To delay a complicated conversation until you are in a quiet spot together or at home and you are more comfortable, try something like: “Not everyone looks the same. He/she looks different from you, just like you look different from me, grandpa, or our neighbor, Mrs. Johnson. Mommy needs to think about how to answer your question. Let’s talk about it in a few minutes.” This will give you time to gather your thoughts and best address your little one’s burning question.

Race and Culture: Education and Exposure

Let your child know that there are skin tones other than his or her own, and people with features other than those your family shares, and show him or her examples of diversity! Whether you live in a diverse community or a more homogenous one, incorporate books and media that show people with features from around the globe. Expose your child to diversity early on. A few suggestions we have for your preschool and Kindergarten age child are All the Colors of the EarthWe’re Different, We’re the Same, and Whoever You Are.

“What am I?”

This is probably one of the most complicated questions a parent can face, but rest assured that as your little one matures and comes into contact more and more with the wider world, your child will ask it at some point. Brainstorm how you want to answer before you are asked. Will you discuss skin tone or eye shape? Will you talk about cultural differences between people? Give your child a picture of who he or she “is” in terms of a geographic view. Start by showing your child where he or she lives on a map now. If you know where your relatives emigrated from, research pictures of people from that region, and photos of relatives if you have them. Expose your child to the clothing, music and art from that area. Give your curious little one some tangible information to hang on to.

Disability Awareness and Education

Children will notice and many times directly point out a person using a wheelchair, leg brace, or other equipment. Strive to use “person first” language when educating your child about people with disabilities. Remember to put the person before the disability. Use this language and your little one will grow to as well. Incorrect example: “There was a wheelchair bound man in the park today.” Correct example: “A man using a wheelchair was in the park today.” Some books we recommend to expose your child to children and adults with various disabilities are Don’t Call Me Special, Susan Laughs and My Friend Isabelle. Whatever aides or techniques you choose to educate your child, work to show your son or daughter that a disability does not define a person, rather is a part of what makes them unique, just as every child is unique.

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Erin

Erin, aka "Mommy" to a 5, 3 and 1 year old, is an adjunct professor, amateur photographer and sci-fi junkie, mostly in that order! She lives in northeast New Jersey with her much adored husband, kiddos and strange looking but loveable hairless cat and revels in baking pureed vegetables into muffins to trick her children into eating (and liking) them. You can find her capturing the beautiful moments of her life's chaos and calm on Instagram and Twitter.

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