You’re in the store getting ready to check out with your 2-year-old. All of a sudden, they point to the man standing behind you and say, “What those, Mommy?” as they stare directly at a pattern of birthmarks that cover one side of his face.
The man smiles and starts to explain that he was born with some colored marks on his skin as you stand there, mortified, with a strong desire to offer endless apologies.
The thing is, your toddler is doing what they do best: Being curious and learning. By taking the time to talk about, and celebrate, how people are different, you lay the foundation for a lifetime of tolerance.
Exploring Differences is Something to Celebrate!
As toddlers encounter new people, it’s natural for them to ask questions to understand better why someone might look, move, or act differently than they do. It’s part of how they build an understanding of the world around them, and themselves.
What kind of differences might your toddler be curious about?
- Skin color
- Glasses or hearing devices
- Scars, moles, birthmarks, or other skin marks
- Disabilities (physical disabilities or ones that may cause someone to behave differently)
- Body shape
Helping Your Toddler Understand Differences
Here are some things to keep in mind when addressing differences with your toddler:
It can be tough to hide your embarrassment when your toddler points to someone or blurts out a question about their appearance or behavior. But it’s important to stay calm and positive. This helps your toddler avoid feeling ashamed for asking these types of questions, encourages them to continue asking, and shows that you are there to help them understand.
For example, if you’re at the park and your toddler points to a baby and says, “Look, it’s a brown baby!” You could say, “Yes, it is! People come in all different colors. Let’s go say hello to him and his mommy!”
Or, if your child asks why someone is in a wheel chair, you can tell them that some people’s bodies work differently, and wheel chairs help them move around.
Proactively talk about differences.
Showing your toddler that differences are all around us can strengthen their understanding. During mealtimes, point out what you like to eat that they don’t, for instance. Or talk about how they have a different color hair than a friend.
While reading books together, you can also ask questions like, “How are these characters different? How are they the same?” At this stage, your child will have very simple answers, but it’s a way to start exploring differences.
Engage in diverse activities.
One way to expose your toddler to diversity is to include books with main characters who have a different skin color or cultural background from your own. You can also look for puzzles, games, and toys that reflect people with various abilities, skin tones, body shapes, etc.
Look to see if your community offers cultural programs, either aimed at all ages or specifically for young children. Your local library is a great place to start.
Above all, model tolerance. Be aware of how you yourself view and respond to differences. This is one of the most powerful ways to instill an attitude of embracing and appreciating our richly diverse world.