Andrea McDowell’s little girl, Frances, is just six years old, but in this short time her mom has learned a lot about what it is to be out of the ordinary. Frances has a rare condition that restricts her growth. She’s a regular, active first grade student – just a whole lot smaller than her classmates.
“Until about a year ago, most of her friends were too young to understand that she was different,” says Andrea. “Now, they ask occasional questions: Why is Frances so little? Why is she still wearing size eight shoes?” “These kids aren’t vicious. They don’t mean it in a negative way. They’re just curious. They don’t know yet that different is bad. They learn that as they get older.”
Instead, it’s the adults whose comments hurt. On one occasion, a shopkeeper followed Andrea around the store, asking her what was ‘wrong’ with her daughter. At a mommy-and-me class, the instructor assured Andrea that her baby would be perfect one day. Another Toronto parent, Adam Swinemar, says he hasn’t had many negative comments about his atypical family, in which two daddies head the household. But he concedes, “There is more explaining, it seems, with the adults. They want all the background, while the kids just say okay, and move on.”
Are kids unconcerned with the unconventional? Anne De Groot thinks so. Just like Adam and Andrea, she’s raising her family in Toronto, the diversity capital of Canada. “Children have pretty good radar. They sense how the person is,” she says. Her two boys, ages five and three and both white, used to be cared for by the Grenadian grandmother next door as well as her extended family. “My kids didn’t even notice the colour difference,” she says. “Kids couldn’t care less.” So just how do children – from all colours and creeds – eventually learn to shrink away from those classmates and neighbours who aren’t like them?
LESSONS LEARNED Some of that is picked up from mom and dad. “Parents teach their children, advertently or inadvertently, what they consider to be ‘correct,’” says disability educator Dr. Mark Nagler of Hamilton, Ont. For instance, many mothers and fathers today didn’t grow up with classmates with disabilities since, at that time, they were segregated and even institutionalized. These parents may react to a child’s innocent question by quickly shushing them. That shushing tells their child that there is something wrong person. Dr. Nagler says, “An abrupt response teaches children to stay away; that people with disabilities might be different and strange.”
Media and entertainment messages also shape our kids’ understanding of differences as they get older. Andrea points out that when short-statured actors appear on TV, “they’re in a comic role. It’s elves and munchkins. I think that does play a role.” And many fictional villains have obvious disabilities, such as Captain Hook and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Anne De Groot believes that news coverage can perpetuate negative stereotypes, too. For instance, stories about honour killings in the Muslim community or African-Canadian gang violence are obviously not representative of an entire ethnic community, but can be misconstrued that way.
KIDS CAN TEACH ADULTS Parents, the media – and the greater community – can learn something from kids. Anne admits that before her kids gave her a reason to get to know her neighbours, she hadn’t had a lot of exposure to visible minorities and didn’t know much about their cultures.
“The openness of children, and their willingness to try new things, is a huge barrier lifter,” she says. “Children, definitely, can open up the world to us.”
Multicultural cities and integrated schools are making some headway. But simply being around people of different ethnicities, disabilities, religions and family structures isn’t enough to knock down stereotypes.
“You have to engage kids in the classroom,” says Dr. Alan Sears, a professor of Social Studies Education at the University of New Brunswick. Dr. Sears’s research, done with kids in Atlantic Canada, showed that their understanding of ethnic differences is wanting, despite increasingly diverse schools.
To promote true awareness, schools need to go beyond organizing a heritage costume day or noodles festival, he says. “Culture is not food. We need to move on to the substance.”
Students could have age-appropriate discussions about deeper issues of accommodation, such as whether it’s fair for a Muslim girl to be disqualified from a soccer game because she’s wearing a head scarf. The best education involves kids getting answers to why, to some degree, we’re all different.
“Sensitivity training is very easy if it’s done correctly,” says Dr. Nagler, who talks to students of all ages about people with disabilities. “I put them in a person’s position who happens to be disabled, and talk about feelings and isolation and abilities. This works very well. People then think it’s automatically wrong to exercise prejudice and discrimination. They accepted prejudice before because they really hadn’t thought about it.”
Beyond classroom education, it also doesn’t hurt to talk to our children when we see stereotypes perpetuated in TV shows, or see examples of racism, and then have a family discussion about why these hurt. It falls on parents (as it always does) to be good role models. To be accepting, open and kind.
After all, no matter what our kids hear at school or on TV, at the end of the day they’re learning from our example.
Published May 2010