How Do I Teach My Kids About Diversity?


Seriously. This isn't one of those posts where I ask you a question and then give you my answer. My kid's out in the world now and - newsflash! - the world isn't always on board with equality.

I knew this when I had kids, of course. I made attempts to stave off the stereotypes. I dressed them in a rainbow of colours, never strapped cauliflower-sized bows to their heads, and my only rule, when the eldest picks out her own clothes, is that she must wear trousers or leggings if she's going to be going out climbing.

I filled their toy boxes with dolls and dinosaurs, cars and kitchen utensils, snuggly bears and space rockets. Their book shelves contain as many stories of brave, clever, imaginative, adventurous girls as I could find (which, despite the current trend for "rebel girl" biographies, is depressingly few) and as many black and Asian faces as the board book section of the bookshop had to offer (almost none).

But, still, friends, relatives and pop culture have had an influence.

"Boys are naughty and girls are good," I was told by my then-two year old, coming home from a playgroup which seemed to be actively trying to enforce this divide. This is the playgroup where she discovered pink princess dresses and Peppa Pig and started wanting to wear her hair in a ponytail so she could look like some kid called Jasmine-Aurora-Twinkletoes-Belle (or something along those lines). "The girls didn't get to go on the trampoline today because the boys were all bad. Boys spoil all our fun."

Next, it seemed like a good thing when the fashion for dinosaurs on girls' clothing swept the nation's supermarkets. But it soon became clear that the boys were getting to hang with the carnivores, while the girls were stuck with sparkly pink herbivores with implausible eyelashes. It wasn't long before my now-three year old was telling me, "Mummy dinosaurs eat plants and look after the babies, and daddy dinosaurs are scary."

On the bright side, my three year old's nursery class is about as diverse as it's possible for a group of small children to be. Less than a quarter of the kids speak English as a first language, although, perhaps predictably, and certainly depressingly, those kids have formed one little clique, the Polish speaking kids another, and I'm not sure what the kids who can't speak either language do other than have more than the average crying fits on the way into class each day. I have to force myself not to be too enthusiastic when the solitary Spaniard or the rogue Romanian starts appearing in my daughter's stories - "You don't HAVE to be friends with anyone, but they do sound like they might be lonely so... OMG PLAY WITH THEM. DO YOU HEAR ME? DON'T LEAVE THEM OUT."

Isn't this why I let her watch so much Mr Sodding Tumble on TV? So she could communicate with other kids in Makaton? Shouldn't they be hanging around the water tray, all signing, "Space man!" (while I hiss "Astronaut!" angrily behind them) "Ice cream! Puppy! I've just fallen on my bottom!"?

But, despite the daily diversity, I've had to desperately giggle with my child about "skin coloured" crayons. "Who told you the peach crayon was 'skin coloured'?" I asked her. "Hahaha, how silly of them! Do all of the kids in your class have peach coloured skin? No, they do not! That's like calling the brown crayon 'eye coloured', isn't it, when you and I have blue eyes? Hahaha, how silly..."

And now the black fairy doll is falling from favour because she's "not a princess". It has not escaped my small child's notice that princesses are a) invariably pale and b) incredibly important/allowed to eat strawberry ice cream whenever they fancy. I need to nip this in the bud before she breaks it to any of her classmates that they're never going to fit the princess bill. Or, come to that matter, before she takes a look in the mirror and realises that her own wild hair does not look all that royal.

I've mentioned this to her nursery teachers who have dug out what few stories there are about princesses of colour, and I'm taking the path of calm disagreement, pointing out exceptions where I can. Beyond the - admittedly high - chance of her saying something tactless, I'm not that worried - my children are not going to grow up racist; they are going to grow up believing that everyone is born equal; they will talk about "fire fighters", "police officers" and "snow people"; they will point out when I'm phrasing things wrong (with eye rolls and tutting and then taking to the internet to vlog about what an embarrassing parent I am - a taste of my own medicine, and all).

But it depresses me that this is still something I'm having to police. That the pervasive pop culture is still - despite CBeebies' best efforts - full of ever-so-subtle messages about gender roles, desirable skin tones and the marriageability of pretty princesses. That my then-one year old could tell the difference between girl and boy Happyland figures, despite nobody in her life ever having told her about pink and blue, trousers and dresses, or long and short hair styles - that she had learned those cues from books and TV and was able to apply them by herself.

So, seriously: is there something else I can be doing? Is there something else we, as a culture, as a generation of better informed parents, can be doing? Because if my kid - who has been actively steered away from gender norms, racial assumptions and Facebook memes of any kind - is picking up on this stuff, there's still something seriously wrong with the messages we're giving our children.

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