Diversity has never been a hotter or more polarising subject. Recent tragic events – the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Borough Market and Finsbury Park terror attacks, Brexit and the general election – seem only to have thrust our differences further into the spotlight.
Whether it’s different religions, politics, race or wealth levels, we live in a rich and diverse society, and never has there been a more apt time to talk about it with our children. Murdered MP Jo Cox’s mantra: ‘There is more that unites us than divides us,’ has become the much-repeated soundbite of 2017, but how do we ensure the next generation ‘gets it’.
According to the Home Office, hate crime figures are rising month on month. At the very lowest end of the scale, can’t most of us recall a playground incident we’re not proud of either witnessing or being involved in? As a teenager, a group of us teased and excluded another girl who was obsessed with the solar system. I now realise that she was probably on the autistic spectrum, but back then we had no understanding and little empathy. Children can be cruel and self-absorbed, but empathy can be learnt.
The diversity landscape is confusing enough for adults never mind children, so the key question is how do we ensure our children are inclusive and can think about the world beyond themselves?
Expose them to different cultures
Bring the world into your home by accessing your local library – look at books, maps, DVDs and magazines, as well as online. Try choosing a country of the week, and make that the theme for games and conversation. Experiment with foods from around the world and learn about different festivals. Nothing beats meeting children from backgrounds different to their own, so think about where they can meet others. If your child’s school is homogenous then community groups can provide more variety.
Teach them to care for others in the local community and beyond
Whether you volunteer your time to be on the PTA or to help at your local food bank, your children need to see you’re committed to the welfare of your community. I take my therapy dog, Bonnie, to the local old folks’ home at the weekend, and this helps my children see how such work is appreciated and how volunteering benefits me too. It provides them with a model of compassion. You can also volunteer for community service projects as a family. Following the recent Grenfell Tower fire disaster, there may be opportunities for your children to contribute. Get the children collecting toys or clothes to donate and if your kids can actually deliver the items to the families in need, they get to feel first-hand the joy of giving to others. Children can feel very powerless and overwhelmed in the face of big issues of poverty and dislocation, so giving them something practical to do counteracts that.
Model the values your child will adopt
Values are taught not caught. Many of our values will be absorbed by our children by observation, but we also need to teach our kids the values important to us. If you allow them to accept a ‘better’ party invite by breaking an acceptance with another friend, they learn that commitment does not matter. If you ask your child to lie about their age in order to get a free under-five ticket to LegoLand, you’re modelling that it’s OK to tell lies. If you’re critical of other people’s race or religion, you’re modelling a lack of acceptance of others. But if you model listening to differing views, your child will develop a willingness to embrace the differences in others.
Require respect in your family
As well as what we do, we can require our children to behave in line with our expectations. Say: “In this family, we treat others with respect. I can see you were upset with Jordan when he took your pen, but we don’t call each other names. When you’re ready, I’ll help you to apologise and use respectful words to tell him how you feel.” Develop a culture in the family of considering how others feel.
Make family mealtimes a place to talk
“The family that eats together, stays together.” Make mealtimes a regular ritual for open dialogue. It’s an ideal opportunity to discuss current concerns, such as voting and democracy. Keep language age appropriate, but explain current issues like the need for good building regulations to ensure people are safe.
The bottom line is 80 per cent of parenting is modelling and in order to nurture socially inclusive and tolerant children, we need to walk the talk, reinforcing our values over and over again. Children see, children do.
Elaine Halligan is London Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that enables parents to get the best out of their children. theparentpractice.com