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“What do you want most for your child?”
I was asked this question during a recent podcast interview with Mary Peterson Cook of This Indulgent Life about how to raise cultured kids.
Though her question appeared to be standard in nature, it was monumental in my eyes.
As parents, we often want to give our children the world. We want them to have what we didn’t have growing up. We want them to feel loved and cared for. We want them to know we will always have their back.
But, there are even more important things that I want my child to possess:
I want my child to have a sense of curiosity.
I want my child to be empathetic.
I want my child to be an instigator of peace.
I want my child to respect and celebrate differences.
And it’s very much possible.
Our young children are in awe of the world around them. They are constantly taking in new information and asking questions about what they see and about differences in gender, skin color, size, abilities, and more.
These moments with toddlers offer great opportunities to teach them about celebrating and respecting those who may be different from us.
This week I was fortunate to discover a wonderful children’s book written by Elizabeth Gerlach called Ben’s Adventures: A Day at the Beach. The book was a bucket full of sunshine, imagination, adventure, and fun! And, the best part, it allowed me to teach my daughter and her friend an important lesson.
With vibrant illustration, the story focuses on a young boy who uses his imagination to create a fun and exciting day at the beach with his family. From building sandcastles and flying kites in the sun to collecting seashells in the surf, Ben has the time of his life!
When I read this book with my toddler, and her neighborhood friend, they giggled almost the whole way through. They especially loved the scene of Ben and his friends chasing crabs on the beach.
Ben acts just like every other kid. He rocks an awesome imagination. He loves to play with his family and he enjoys being outdoors.
The only differences are:
Ben can’t talk.
Ben can’t walk.
Ben has cerebral palsy.
And that’s a-ok!
He uses his imagination every day to explore the world around him. He doesn’t let his limitations define him.
At the end of the story, you see Ben transitioning from his wheelchair to the bed, tired from his exciting day at the beach.
While I will say, this book was an enjoyable read for all of us, it also served a higher purpose.
It started a basic conversation. It provoked questions. It broke down walls of misunderstanding.
My daughter’s friend Grace asked why Ben “sat in a chair with wheels.”
I explained to her how some of us use legs to get around and some of us use wheelchairs to get around.
She seemed to accept my answer.
As a parent, how are you raising your children to respect and celebrate differences and to be inclusive?
Even if you only have a toddler, it’s never too early to start planting these important values.
Here are three tips to help you teach your child to respect and celebrate diversity:
Model the behaviors
Your child is watching you at every moment. She is learning how you respond to others and how you react to your environment. Celebrating differences and being respectful of others starts at home.
Whether it is celebrating differences by joining Ben on his adventures (more to come!) or remembering to speak and act in ways that align with these values, it is important to show our youngsters how to embrace diversity.
Avoid labeling people based on their differences or using jokes that reinforce stereotypes. You are on the center stage and you are teaching your child how to interact with the world.
Expose your kid to new experiences
It’s all too easy to exist in a bubble and drive through the same neighborhoods every day and interact with the same people in your social circle, community, or church.
Get out of that bubble, mama!
Step out of your comfort zone and explore Chinatown instead of your typical stomping grounds, introduce your children to people from other countries, people who are unlike you and who have different religious traditions than you.
If you live in small town America, where diversity is often lacking, check out nearby cultural establishments (like museums, art galleries, libraries, unique churches, etc.), read books that portray children of different colors and abilities (one of the big reasons why books like Ben’s Adventures are so important), and choose television programs that reflect differences in a positive way (Sesame Street is your best bet). Take trips to spots that grant your family the opportunity to expand their understanding of the world.
Related: 5 Ways to Raise a Cultured Kid
Be prepared with answers
Most kids ask questions every two seconds, it seems.
“Why can’t I have spaghetti for breakfast?”
“Why is that man standing in the middle of the street with that sign?”
“Why does her hair look different than mine?”
Young children are curious little creatures, they want to know what is going on at every second and may begin to ask why some of the people around them look or act differently. Here’s how to be ready with an answer:
When you’re out in a public place, the top way to respond to your child’s comments about size, abilities, race, language, or clothing is to be positive, direct, and honest. When your kiddo points out differences, try replying with, “Yes, we are in a very big world and not everyone looks like you. Our differences are what makes the world more interesting.”
Be sure to teach your child that making comments on or asking questions about an individual’s physical appearance in public can make others feel uncomfortable. When necessary, apologize on behalf of your child, then discuss the situation at home later.
Figure out why your child asked
Younger children don’t have defined ideas about differences, so it’s good to discover why they asked. Then, you want to share the truth. For example, when reading Ben’s Adventures book Grace asked about Ben’s wheelchair and wants to understand why, I told tell her that he uses the wheelchair to get around, just like she uses her legs. Remember to keep answers age appropriate—there’s no need to get technical.
Don’t act like differences don’t exist
Sometimes when our children make comments about those who are different from us we insist that we are all the same. Though you’re speaking with good intentions, it fails to recognize the multiethnic and multicultural world our children are growing up in.
Instead, try taking this approach: Recognize differences and teach your child that our uniqueness makes each of us special. Remind them that even though someone may look or act different than them, it’s possible to have things in common—like an obsession with watching Elmo or using their imagination to play.
When your child discovers similarities, it helps them to learn more about others and make them realize that every single person deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. It also helps them to be more respectful, open-minded, and accepting of others.
Ben’s Adventures: A Day at the Beach is great at showing this very notion. Ben shows children that despite his medical and physical condition, he is still a little kid who likes to play, just like them.
Reading books with your children that embrace differences helps them to understand that it is normal to be different.
As a mother, there is another reason why I chose Ben’s Adventure book series to teach my daughter about accepting others and embracing differences.
Ben was a real person.
A little boy who enjoyed being outside in the sun with the wind in his hair. A boy who had a brother and sister, who went to church, who enjoyed lights and toys, and his family. He also had quadriplegic cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Sadly, his life was cut short after a two-year battle with multiple respiratory illnesses.
Ben’s Adventures book series serves as a mother’s loving tribute to her son, a way for him to live on and help others.
And I’m so excited to announce that the second book in Ben’s Adventures book series is already in the works.
Guess where Ben’s next big adventure will be…the circus!
If you and your child are interested in joining along with Ben on his adventures, Ben’s Adventures: Circus Day will be available for pre-order beginning May 2nd on Kickstarter. Ben’s mom, Elizabeth Gerlach, is aiming to raise funds through Kickstarter to help with the printing and production of the new book. Ben’s Adventures books are available on Amazon and at www.Bens-Adventures.com.
And now, I ask you the very question I was asked not so long ago: