I have a question about encouraging tolerance in a pre-schooler. My daughter is 4 and is very interested in dresses. I taped the Oscars Red Carpet show and watched it with her yesterday. When she saw Melissa McCarthy she said, "I don't like her. She's fat." I was flabbergasted.
Where to begin? And how to approach this age-appropriately so it will sink in! And where does this come from? Oy. So I told her that it's not ok to dislike someone because of how they look. "How would you like it if someone said they don't like you because you are too tall?" That we all come in different sizes. That the people in our family that are larger are good, kind, lovely people... She continued to insist that she doesn't like fat people and I told her it hurts my feelings to hear her say things like that. I don't feel like I got through to her at all and I'm very concerned about this bias appearing at such a young age. Her screen time is restricted - she mostly watches little bear and curious george - but she does have a fascination with princesses and has seen Disney movies - Cinderella, Snow White, Little Mermaid. I can't think of any overt size-based bias in those films but of course I don't love that she looks up to these characters that have no depth. What's a modern, feminist, politically-correct mom to do? How can I make sure she is empathetic as she grows up and sees that being different is not bad? Whether it's size or race or whatever else might come up... Do you have any resources you can recommend? Thank you!!!
From: Jessica, Boston
A new level of cognition likely has kicked in for your daughter: she's capable of identifying and naming differences. If she's like most kids, she's very proud of this new-found ability. It feels grown-up to her. Many kids go around literally making comparisons: he's tall, he's short, she's got blonde, she has black hair. Those kinds of statements are pretty innocuous -- they are statements of fact -- so as parents, we probably don't pay much attention to them. But as soon as the words of difference convey value -- and you've just hit the jackpot -- most of us freak. If she wasn't ascribing value to it before, she sure is now.
Don't get me wrong. That's not bad. It is, after all, our job to identify and pass along our values to our children. So that's what you're doing. You don't need to go overboard -- and yes, you probably over-reacted -- because you're going to continue to convey your values in many different ways over the years. You're laying the foundation now; actually, you've been laying it all along. The consistency of your message, and its repetition, is what will get through to her.
My preference is always to feed into a child's developmental strength which, at this moment, is her ability to recognize differences. Next time, you might say, "Oh, you're noticing that people are different. Mary has black hair and black skin. You have yellow hair and white skin." Or: "Mary is big. You're small." That's giving her value-neutral words to state a fact and validate her ability all at the same time.
I said earlier, "If she wasn't ascribing value to it," because , of course, she was. She said, "I don't like her [because] she's fat." I like your answer: "It's not OK to dislike someone because they look." So where does this come from if you don't use language like that at home? Classmates, baby sitters, the videos she watches (and you're also right that Disney feeds into gender stereotypes), commercials, ads, in short, our culture. So, yes, you do need to counter these statements. You do need to pay attention to what messages she's getting from her screens, wherever she may watch. You just don't need to panic about it and you certainly don't want to make her feel ashamed for repeating what she's picked up by simply living in the world, well, the world we've created.
Here's more on teaching tolerance.
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