THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Teachings on diversity, tolerance should start early

Preschoolers can learn its OK to notice our differences

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / November 22, 2001
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Just before Thanksgiving 12 years ago, Marcus McCroskey, then 3, told his mother, "Someone should have put Christopher Columbus in timeout!"

At the time, his comment affirmed Helen McCroskey's work more than anything any adult could have said. It still does today. McCroskey is an early-childhood educator and program director at Ruggles/Gilday Early Education Center in Roxbury. She helped develop "Anti-Bias," an early-childhood curriculum in use nationwide and recently helped produce a video for teachers, "Start Seeing Diversity" (Red Leaf Press).

" `Anti-bias' may be a grown-up word," she says, "but even very little children get what it means."

What she wants them to get is that it's OK to notice differences and to talk about them as long as we also learn to respect, protect, celebrate, and honor them. This Thanksgiving, her words and her work take on new importance.

"If we want adults in this diverse world to get along, we have to start when they are young children," she says.

She means really young. McCroskey says that when you give your 5-month-old a chunky baby book, look for one that has photos of babies of all shapes, sizes, and colors. "The idea is to create an environment from the start that affirms their own identity but also includes diversity as a normal part of life," she says.

If ever she doubts the efficacy of this plan, she need only look at Marcus (At 15, she says, "He is better able to get along with people of all differences than almost anyone I know."), and remember the day he made his Columbus comment. McCroskey was a teacher at the Washington Beech Preschool in Roslindale then, and Marcus was one of her students. She read some books to them telling the Thanksgiving story first from the Pilgrims' perspective, then from the Native Americans' perspective. Marcus's reaction, like many other children's, was instinctive: "That isn't fair!"

The ability to cognitively take another person's perspective doesn't occur until sometime in mid-adolescence. Even 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds notice differences, however, and some are capable of understanding inequity, says early-childhood educator Louise Derman-Sparks of Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. She is a pioneer in anti-bias education.

The problem, if there is one, doesn't start with children. It starts with parents.

You're in the grocery with your 3-year-old when he points and cries, "Look at that fat lady!"

"The typical parent says `Shhh, don't say that!' " says Wheelock College early-childhood educator Eleonora Villegas-Reimers. That simple statement, intended to spare the person's feelings, gives a child mixed messages that are more likely to breed prejudice than tolerance.

"That a preschooler notices differences means he has gained the ability to put things into categories," says Villegas-Reimers. Hair is long or short, people are big or small. This is fun for a preschooler, a kind of mental flexing. "He's not attaching good or bad to it," she says.

As soon as a parent shushes him, however, there is value attached. "To a young child, if he can't talk about the difference, there must be something bad, wrong, or scary about it," says Villegas-Reimers.

Even if you are in earshot of the person, she and McCroskey recommend an immediate response, arguing that it is more respectful for the person to hear a matter-of-fact appraisal than "shhhh," which is shaming. Saying nothing at all also is not helpful. "Silence translates to agreement" for children of all ages, says McCroskey.

Here's an example of what they would recommend saying:

"Yes, you're right, that lady is big, isn't she?" That affirms his judgment and grasp of the facts.

"People come in all different shapes and sizes and colors, don't they? Some people are short and some are tall, and some are small and some are big." That normalizes it.

"I think that's a good thing, don't you?" That's puts your stamp of approval on the difference.

In a classroom, McCroskey might make a game out of a difference a child notices: " `Yes, that person has oval eyes and your eyes are round. Let's see how many different kinds of eye shapes we have in the class." She remembers how she once turned a child's negative observation into a positive one. "A boy said to another child, `You're Haitian,' clearly meaning it as a put-down," she says. She bypassed the intent and went directly into categorizing: "'Yes, he is Haitian. You're Irish, and I'm African-American. I wonder how many different cultures we have in our classroom!"

Her goal was to help this boy feel good about himself. "You can't respect people who are different from you if you don't first have confidence in who you are," she says.

By 6 and 7, children typically ask pointed questions about differences: "Why does that man talk funny?" At 9 and 10, they may draw generalized conclusions from specific personal experiences: "Abdul was mean to me! Arabs are mean!"

In order to fight stereotyping, children need honest, factual answers, says educator Marty Sleeper, director of the New England Region of Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit group that trains teachers to use the lessons of history to teach tolerance. Even if a second-grader's question sounds mean, it's typically simply a more sophisticated version of the preschooler's observation.

His answer would be simple but would offer some historical context: "That man speaks English with an accent. That happens to a lot of people who come to this country from another country because they learned to speak another language first. It must be hard for them, don't you think? I admire that they can learn another language." This is also a good time to remind a child that everybody isn't as different as he might think: "I wonder what your great-grandfather's accent was like when he came from Norway."

Around age 7, children understand that a person can have many characteristics at once, says Villegas-Reimers. "Now you can get them to go beyond appearance, which focuses them on differences, to similarities, which is more likely to be internal: `Yes, that girl uses a wheelchair, but she goes to school, just like you. I wonder if she likes dolls, too?' "

When a child of any age generalizes, Sleeper says, parents often are too quick to chide: "I don't want to hear you say things like that!" That isn't helpful.

"Maybe the other child was mean to him," says Sleeper. "His judgment about the experience may not be wrong, it's the generalization that is. But you'll never get to that if you don't invite the conversation and first get at what caused his anger or hurt." Try a sympathetic comment: "Sounds like he did something you really didn't like."

Once you identify the action that caused the response, push beyond it, says Derman-Sparks: "It sounds like what Abdul said was mean. But do you think being Arab-American is what made him say that?" With a child 11 or older, she would go further and look at differences between groups of people: "So you think all Arab-Americans are mean? How come? What do you know about Arab-Americans?"

While your parental authority ("I don't think that's true") will work with young children, it's not enough with a preteen. "You still want to make clear your own position," says Derman-Sparks, but you may need some outside, objective material to bolster your view. A teacher may be able to help you find some readings.

McCroskey reminds that if we want to raise children who are free of bias, what we model carries enormous weight. "Children of all ages are watching us," she says. "our words, our actions, even our facial expressions."

Contact Barbara F. Meltz at meltz@globe.com.

DISCUSS DANGERS OF STEREOTYPING, PREJUDICE, LABELS

1. IF YOU'VE NEVER HAD CONVERSATIONS ABOUT DIFFERENCES, IT'S NOT TOO LATE TO START. WITH A CHILD 7 OR YOUNGER, BEGIN WITH SOMETHING CONCRETE, LIKE A BOOK WITH CHILDREN WHO LOOK DIFFERENT. TELL HER, ``WE'VE NEVER TALKED ABOUT WHY PEOPLE LOOK DIFFERENT, HAVE WE? DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THAT?'' WITH AN OLDER CHILD, HAVE A CONVERSATION: ``YOU KNOW, WE'VE NEVER TALKED ABOUT DIFFERENCES BUT I WANT YOU TO KNOW IT'S AN OK THING TO TALK ABOUT AND I HOPE YOU'VE NOTICED THAT THEY DON'T MATTER TO ME.''

2. IF TOLERANCE MATTERS TO YOU, IT'S NOT ENOUGH TO SEE THAT YOUR CHILD'S PRESCHOOL IS ETHNICALLY DIVERSE. SPEND TIME IN THE CLASSROOM BEFORE YOU CHOOSE A SCHOOL. DO THEY USE AN ANTI-BIAS CURRICULUM? DO TEACHERS ASK OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS? DO THEY HELP CHILDREN SOLVE PROBLEMS? THESE ARE CLUES THAT THEY ARE LIKELY TO BE RESPECTFUL OF DIFFERENCES AND TO HELP CHILDREN DEVELOP CRITICAL-THINKING SKILLS, WHICH LEADS THEM TO STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES AND FOR OTHERS IN THE FACE OF UNFAIR TREATMENT.

3. SOME WAYS TO SHOW THAT YOU VALUE DIVERSITY ARE THROUGH THE BOOKS AND MAGAZINES YOU HAVE IN YOUR HOME, THE BUSINESSES YOU FREQUENT, THE FRIENDS YOU HAVE, AND BY POINTING OUT STEREOTYPES IN ADS, COMMERCIALS, AND TV PROGRAMMING.

4. BY THIRD GRADE, TALK TO CHILDREN ABOUT WHAT LABELS, STEREOTYPES, AND PREJUDICE ARE. FOR INSTANCE, ``LABELS ARE WHEN WE CALL A PERSON HURTFUL NAMES BECAUSE OF A DIFFERENCE YOU CAN SEE. STEREOTYPES ARE HURTFUL STATEMENTS ABOUT A PERSON BECAUSE YOU HAVE A FALSE IDEA ABOUT A GROUP THAT PERSON BELONGS TO. PREJUDICE IS WHEN YOU SAY PEOPLE ARE A CERTAIN WAY BECAUSE YOU HAVE BAD IDEAS ABOUT THE GROUP THEY BELONG TO.'

5 RECOMMENDED BOOKS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN: ``THE SNEETCHES AND OTHER STORIES'' BY DR. SEUSS (RANDOM HOUSE); ``YOKO'' BY ROSEMARY WELLS (HYPERION); ``THE BRAND NEW KID'' BY KATIE COURIC (DOUBLEDAY). FOR SCHOOL-AGE: ``HOW TIA LOLA CAME TO VISIT/STAY'' BY JULIA ALVAREZ (KNOPF).

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