“He’s not like a ‘me’ and he’s not like a ‘Zoe.’ He’s kinda a purple kind of brown.” My 3-year-old son is describing what his newest best friend in preschool looks like. Immediately, I know who he’s talking about.
“He’s Indian,” I say. So we pull out his atlas to find India. I read him the information provided about the country and tell him to ask his new buddy about his travels there. With a quick Google search and a few clicks on my phone, I put four India-related children’s books on hold at the library and a calendar reminder in a week to ask my son if he’s talked to Michael about it.
A week later, we’re going through a similar process. This time China.
Because our family doesn’t match, we’re more motivated than most to pursue inclusion. But we’re also compelled to prioritize it because we follow Jesus. He clearly made it a priority to go to the ends of the earth and care for all people—of all races, backgrounds, and abilities. Following Him means replicating his example, so we’re pursuing the same. We’ve learned to be very intentional about putting our kids in environments where they’ll be exposed to people who don’t look, talk, or act like them. In our home and outside of our home, our kids have to learn what inclusion looks like. When we believe something matters, we believe we have a responsibility to put some effort behind it.
Even though our family dynamic specifically encourages us to think strategically about inclusion, I can’t help but wonder how much better the world would be if everyone valued it. What if everyone trained their kids in it? What if everyone cared more about empathy than self-preservation? What would the impact be on bullying, racism, rejection, and insecurity? How much could change if more people knew how to (and chose to) care about including others intentionally? It’s overwhelming for any one person to try to change it on a world-wide scale, but if you’re a parent, we have a powerful way to change the world under your roof: by training our kids to care.
Here are a few simple ways we’re training our kids to be includers:
Stories are a powerful way to “travel” with kids. We explore different parts of the world by making sure our book collection from the library each week has interesting and diverse characters. We aim to see different family dynamics and special needs represented as well. We talk about skin tones, ethnicities, special needs, and family dynamics openly and honestly when reading stories. We’re intentionally aiming to give language to our kids on how to respond when someone looks different than they look.
Same and Different
Empathy is born when we can see similarities between someone else and ourselves. When our kids point out a difference, we encourage them to also find the similarity. “Yes, our friend Addy uses a wheelchair to move around. That’s different than you using your legs. What’s the same? Yes, you both love going fast!” Inclusion begins with empathy. Empathy begins with our ability to relate to one another, to find a similarity. What we come to find out is that we’re all more alike than we first think.
As with many things we train our kids in, repetition matters. When our oldest two are leaving their brother out, we give a clear directive: “Dillers are includers. Find a way to include your brother.” Or, “It looks like this girl would like to play tag, too. Dillers are includers. Let’s find a way to include her.” Oftentimes, they also need the next step of how to include. “Try asking your brother if he’d like to build a tower next to you instead of knocking yours down.” Even though we’re still in the early stages of training them, they at least hear—on repeat—that our family values inclusion, and they’re realizing it takes a step on their part to make inclusion happen.
Training our kids in inclusion is powerful. If we don’t teach them to care about including others now, they’re not likely to care about the needs of people around them as they grow. We have the chance to teach them to notice and include the lonely, misunderstood, and marginalized now. We get to build the skills of overcoming differences into them now. We need to train them to share what they have now (toys, friendship, encouragement) so that it’s natural for them to live that way and share their resources and privilege as they grow. It may seem small now, but I am confident that raising kids who demonstrate compassion and empathy because they’ve learned to include others—regardless of perceived or real differences—will, indeed, powerfully change the world.
Pretty words won’t change your life. This might:
Imagine the world in twenty years if an entire generation grew up with inclusion and empathy skills. What do you think the impact would be?
Who comes to mind for you when you read this article? What’s the biggest barrier for you when it comes to proactively including others?
Brainstorm one way you can try this out. Commit to learning more about someone or intentionally including someone you notice is different than you, misunderstood, isolated, or marginalized. Tell a friend your plan so they can help you follow through, and do it.