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Teaching children to respect diversity.

Children deserve the best we can give them. They deserve plenty of nourishing food, access to health care and a safe place to live. They deserve our protection from exploitation, war and other sources of physical and mental harm. They deserve to live in a world free of discrimination and to receive an education that will help them be respectful and appreciative of the diversity around them.

Most industrialized countries have elementary school enrollment rates of at least 90 percent. In the United States, 96 percent of children complete at least four years of elementary school. But educators in this country face a critical challenge that extends beyond enrollment: the task of educating our children to appreciate and respect diversity.

What children learn about the wide variety of people in the world around them will significantly influence the way they grow and what kind of adults they will become. It will determine whether they develop into confident, secure members of society who respect and appreciate diversity or into adults who view others with hostility and fear because of ignorance.

Understanding is the key to our acceptance of diversity. The United States is made up of hundreds of different cultures, each with different customs of speech, dress, food and behavior. Historically, this diversity has been a strength. We must teach children about the benefits of diversity.

People fear what they do not understand and this fear is often manifested as hostility. Instead of focusing their concentration on learning, young people who mistrust and fear diversity often expend their energy in unproductive anger and suspicion.

Such suspicion hurts all of us. Racial and cultural stereotyping turns our homes, schools, workplaces and communities into zones of misunderstanding and mistrust. Children may grow up hearing messages that tell them members of their culture are destined to fail. If they believe these messages, they are more likely to fulfill that prophecy. Freeing young people from preconceived expectations of failure will help them avoid the pain of low self-esteem that contributes to soaring school dropout and teen pregnancy rates, violence and racial conflict, drug use and a host of other crises.

Education about our differences reduces young people's fear and replaces it with curiosity and acceptance. Helping young people to explore why others look, dress, speak and act differently can help turn their mistrust into understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity that makes up our world.

It is never too early to help children understand this diversity. Some parents, fearing that their children are too young to understand complex questions about race and culture, initially avoid the subject, hoping the discussion will be easier when the children are older.

But children who receive no information about diversity at home or school are vulnerable to the opinions expressed in a myriad of sources, including the news media, television shows, advertising, food packaging, toys and books. These influences often reinforce negative racial, cultural and sexual stereotypes. Parents and teachers should address the difficult questions about diversity before the child has a chance to be negatively influenced.

Teaching children to understand and enjoy diversity starts with defining it and describing how it is a part of all of our lives. Showing children how they have already incorporated aspects of other cultures into their own lives is one good strategy.

There are many other ways to teach children to appreciate and respect diversity. Teachers and adults can start by taking a close look at their own behavior. Each day, we have an abundance of opportunities for making a point, positive or negative, about diversity. What adults say about different foods available in the supermarket, about different neighborhoods and about what features are considered attractive in other people can have a profound influence on children.

Similarly, giving children opportunities to interact with peers from diverse backgrounds helps them to learn the differences and similarities in our culture through the bond of friendship. Sometimes, such bonds can be formed simply by being in the same classroom with children from other backgrounds. Organized activities like sports, drama or creative groups give children opportunities to share stories about themselves and their lifestyles in an informal and familiar setting.

Young people who have been successfully taught to appreciate diversity grow up to be secure adults with an understanding of other people that goes beyond the superficial attributes of skin color or accent. They are much more self-confident and capable in a variety of different situations and with many different types of people. And they are more likely to make judgments based on substantive reasons.

Teaching children about different cultures also helps them gain a deeper understanding of the way they themselves live. At a New York City elementary school, a classroom of 9- and 10-year-olds undertook an intensive, year-long study of Africa. Group work was an integral part of learning in this classroom, but individuality was concurrently emphasized. The teacher accepted that children approaching adolescence often crave conformity with their peers in dress and habits and realized that many are initially uncomfortable around those who seem different. By encouraging positive attitudes about diversity, a teacher can make sure learning takes place in an environment respectful of individuality.

The children in the New York classroom freely discussed the ways in which people who live on the African continent differ from themselves in custom, dress and eating habits. In doing so, they learned to look at their own cultures in a new light. An animated group discussion of one culture's different styles of clothing made some of the children realize how much their own culture emphasizes clothing. A group of girls, initially horrified to learn of traditional African body-piercing, realized that ear-piercing was a form of body-piercing that they found "normal" because they were accustomed to it. And after a long group discussion in which the children argued the merits of eating raw fish, one participant showed the class a sushi menu she had been using as a bookmark.

Teachers using this curriculum say that they can see a difference in how the students respond to new reading assignments. They used to laugh or make embarrassed and inappropriate comments when they first learned of customs they found unusual. Now, they discuss the customs among themselves and compare them to their own cultures. This way of learning will have long-term benefits. The children will bring their new appreciation of differences into their adult lives, and by doing so will enjoy a talent for self-analysis possible only with the skill of comparison and the advantage of tolerance. Also, this kind of atmosphere makes the teaching process come alive for the teacher, as well as for the students.

The U.S. Committee for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, as part of its mission to aid children in developing countries through education and fundraising, is working to build a society that appreciates and rewards diversity. The U.S. Committee coordinates fundraising and educational programs among schools, religious and youth groups, and clubs in all 50 U.S. states. The programs, conducted by a national network of volunteers and staff, have a strong educational component designed to increase awareness of UNICEF and understanding of children's lives in the developing world. Using UNICEF's overseas programs as a bridge of understanding, the U.S. Committee is helping children to identify with and see the similarities among all children.

The U.S. Committee for UNICEF now reaches out to more than 1 million U.S. children each year through its traditional "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF" program, which has involved young volunteers since 1950 in raising money to support UNICEF-assisted projects and programs in developing countries. This October, our "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF" program will become the cornerstone of "National UNICEF Month," the new vision of the U.S. Committee aimed at increasing the global awareness of young people across the nation. National UNICEF Month will offer children the chance to take greater pride in their cultural heritage and to understand global diversity.

The U.S. Committee's new mission is to establish active volunteer committees in as many of the 16,000 school districts in the United States as possible. Volunteers will work with school teachers and administrators to help design and supply curriculum materials and instructional strategies that emphasize diversity, for use both in and out of the classroom. What we need are teachers, administrators and school board members who will work with our volunteers to implement the curriculum.

Volunteering does not require a large amount of time or money; all it takes is the will of individuals and groups to educate children and the general public about the conditions under which children are living all over the world. Money raised by volunteers allows the U.S. Committee for UNICEF to help developing countries reduce infant and maternal mortality rates, provide universal access to safe drinking water and to basic education, and lower the adult illiteracy rate.

Only about 2 percent of all aid for development is dedicated to education. To address this shortcoming, UNICEF has established a goal of providing primary school education for 80 percent of the world's children by the year 2000. Policy and strategy have turned away from education in recent years. Instead of expansion, education services have experienced cutbacks. The proportion of the developing world's children enrolled in primary school has risen by two thirds, from 48 percent in 1960 to 78 percent in 1990. This is an enormous achievement in light of the fact that the actual number of children needing schooling has almost doubled in that period. More than 90 percent of the children in the developing world start 1st grade. Unfortunately, almost half of them leave before completing four years. An estimated 100 million children age 6 to 11 are still not in school; two thirds of these children are girls.

Children in the developing world do not receive the education opportunities that they need and deserve. Millions are therefore prevented from reaching their potential. Even in the poorest countries, education can release the poor from a cycle of poverty that affects generation after generation. Studies in Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea show that farmers with schooling are more productive. Research and common sense suggest that better-educated people can participate more fully in the processes of modernization and development and are better able to raise their own incomes and contribute to their nation's, and the world's, economic health.

Limiting our children's educational growth in any way robs them of the chance to make the most of their future. In the U.S., stereotypes thwart the ambitions of some of our most promising young people. Freeing children from prejudice enables them to envision being who and what they want, doing whatever they do best. With the help of thousands of volunteers, the U.S. Committee for UNICEF is working to bring that freedom to all children, no matter where they were born.

Gwendolyn Calvert Baker is President and CEO, United States Committee for UNICEF.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Baker, Gwendolyn Calvert
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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