Every January we pause to remember Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birth. Dr. King left an incredible legacy whose truths are just as relevant and valuable today, as they were in the mid-20th Century. Educators and parents continue to develop ways of conveying his key ideals to each new generation, and we are excited to celebrate his life and work, this month.
Enduring lessons from MLK’s life and work include:
- Civil Rights. We continue to strive toward the fundamental goal of racial equality in our country, and around the world. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- Service. Dr. King’s well-known philosophy of nonviolent social change as an alternative to violent conflict was more than a political tool. It also served to illustrate his belief in civic engagement, and that’s why MLK Day is a National Day of Service and promotes volunteer opportunities in our communities.
- Diversity. By dedicating his life to the struggle for racial equality, Dr. King embodied the belief that America’s diversity is an essential aspect of the country’s identity and strength. Today, more than ever, this may be the most powerful lesson we can impart to our youth.
In 21st century America, the concept of diversity isn’t limited to racial diversity, but encompasses ethnic, socio-economic, religious, political and just about any feature that people use to self-identify.
You may be thinking this topic is too complex for very young children to grasp, but abundant evidence indicates that it’s never too early to introduce and discuss these truths with our children.
“Young children notice differences as young as 6 months of age,” shared Vanessa Macias, Quality Services Supervisor at Child360.
Research reveals that by age two, babies realize racial differences and use observations to classify who “their” people are, and show preference based upon skin color. Macias emphasized that these conclusions are often learned by what they perceive from their caregivers—though, these conclusions primarily lean on observation, not what adults know as racism. “Any ideas that children express when it comes to racial differences tends to come from the children trying to come to conclusions about what they consider to be true: They are noticing differences in skin color, what makes a boy or a girl, what is a child versus an adult, and so on,” shared Macias.
“All of this information tells us we have valuable opportunities to begin supporting inclusive ideas and identity development early in life.”
We spoke to Child360 program coach Katherine Leon to learn how to incorporate diversity and its lessons into daily care, and discovered that the key to success might be less planning-oriented than you think.
“What is most important is open conversation/discussion–especially when a challenging topic is introduced by a child,” says Leon. She believes that while planned lessons can be beneficial, for very young children, fostering a broader “environment that supports the child’s ideas–even when adults perceive those ideas as challenging or prejudiced–is the most effective approach.”
To effectively guide a child’s ability to navigate diversity issues, Leon emphasizes that adults must check their discomfort at the door. “It’s important that differences are discussed, questions are answered and not avoided,” she says. “When a child makes a (positive or negative) remark about another child’s skin color or race/ethnicity, it should be discussed instead of corrected.” If the child is immediately shushed, or told they are wrong, “you’ve lost the opportunity to help them work through their ideas.”
Macias also echoed these sentiments, adding that these conversations can help children learn to appreciate the differences.
Ways for adults to support children at home or in the classroom can be simple additions such as skin color crayons/paint/paper, and books on the differences between people such as skin color, hair, dress, etc. Using a persona doll is a great way to discuss these types of topics with a group of children.
If you’re seeking to enhance your library with books to help stimulate discussion of diversity and prejudice with preschool age children, Child360’s Leon offers the following recommendations:
“Celebrating the beauty of skin color, hair texture, eye shape, countries, neighborhoods, and cultural differences, helps to build a stronger community, diminishes prejudice or fear, and helps children become global citizens. A healthy and generous attitude toward diversity enriches our society as well as our souls,” shared Macias.