Talking about Diversity with Your Kids: An Interview with Carolyn and Joy on Foreword Reviews

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Billboard image. (See a blank space here? Turn on images or scroll down.)Foreword This Week
July 30, 2020
Reviewer Melissa Wuske Interviews Carolyn Helsel and Joy Harris-Smith, Authors of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences

One of the things that makes racism such a thorny problem is that a great many of us who care deeply about racial issues unknowingly commit racially insensitive acts on occasion. We didn’t intend to offend, we just didn’t know any better. It takes a real commitment to listen and learn from people of different ethnicities for positive change to happen.ABCs of Diversity cover 
Thankfully, this recent period of protest and unrest seems to be bringing newfound attention to racial matters. Also, surveys show us that Generations Y and Z are much more tolerant of difference. Change seems to happen at a generational pace. So what can we do to keep moving in the right direction? We can teach our kids the science of acceptance and The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences, one of the best new projects we’ve seen for encouraging honest conversations about race, gender and sexuality, and religion with children.

Melissa Wuske reviewed The ABCs in the July/August issue of Foreword Reviews, and we were inspired to reach out to Chalice Press to help us connect with authors Carolyn Helsel and Joy Harris-Smith for this FaceOff interview.

Melissa, you’re on.

It’s hard to imagine a more timely moment for this book to come out. It’s an unprecedented, deeply emotional time for racial justice in America. As parents see what’s happening and seek to engage positively, how can they invite their kids to be part of what’s happening? And what should they shield their children from?


Helsel: One way parents can engage their kids is to first learn what their kids are thinking about what is happening. Whatever age your child is, they already have their own experiences and scaffolding for how to make sense of the world, so begin by asking what they know about the situation and what they think about it. Follow up what they know with what you hope they will know: that as their parent you will keep them safe (if they are scared) and that you want them to know that you are there for them.

Another way to engage your kids is to help them see themselves in the work of other young people. Highlight that the leaders of several of the protests were teenagers or persons in their early twenties. Let them know that young people are working to make a difference, and that they too can make a difference in their worlds.

At my house, we don’t watch a lot of television (mostly streaming services), so my children don’t see the news except on Sundays when we get the paper, or when we relay to them what we find out from online news sources. I try to shield them from too much bad news (there is so much every day!), but generally I also try to keep them informed of what is going on. If something bothers me, they can sense it, and they are pretty consistent in asking questions until I share with them what has made me upset. When George Floyd was killed, I did not show them the video, but I did tell them that another black man had been killed by the police. I answered questions they had about it (why? how?) as best as I could, but ultimately, there are many situations that defy our ability to answer questions, so we sit with the pain and we mourn together. Then, when protests starting taking place, it felt like mourners were coming out of the woodworks from every nation, collectively saying: “enough is enough!”

Harris: Parents need to be reminded that children learn many lessons from their parents. Some of these lessons are explicit but many are implicit. This is to say that children learn both direct (explicit) and indirect (implicit) lessons from parents, teachers, and other influential adults in their lives. However, I would posit that it is those indirect or implicit lessons that are most vivid. For example, my mother was a nurse who would always stop and assist those who were elderly or visually challenged. One day while walking through the park, my mother saw a man that looked like he was struggling to breathe. She pointed it out to me but we were on our way to the store and I wanted to keep going. My mother ignored my request and went over to the man and it turns out he was having difficulty breathing. My mother ordered someone nearby to call 911 and she stayed until emergency services arrived and assisting until they took him away. To this day, I am compelled to ask those elders or persons who have varying challenges if they would like my help. I’m sure my mother told me I should help others but it was seeing her constantly help others that stuck with me and compels me even as a full grown adult with my own children.

Before parents can invite their children to be part of what’s happening they first should consider the ways in which they are engaging or not. As they reflect on their actions they can begin to take specific steps to invite their children to participate. Ways to invite your child(ren) might include but are not limited to:

Watching a program together and having a discussion
Talking about things that happened in school
Discussing fairness
Attending a program
Going to a museum, a lecture
Writing a local politician on behalf of another
Hosting another family for dinner or dessert

These are all beginnings—not endings. We know children will learn things whether we are intentional in teaching them or not but I believe when children learn alongside their parents these are precious gifts that last a lifetime.Being able to shield children from things can be considered a privilege. When it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion many parents do not have that luxury. Parents have to make these decisions with the child’s best interest in mind.

As parents seek thoughtful ways to address diversity with their children, they can’t shield them from all other influences—homophobia at school, grandparents with different understandings of race, friends with inflexible religious views. How can parents address these kinds of situations?

Harris: Parents have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Parents have to be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Parents have to even be willing to lovingly confront loved ones and others for the sake of their children. They can’t remain silent—not in today’s current climate—silence has too often killed, maimed, and irreparably damaged lives. Silence can speak both positively and negatively. Therefore, parents have to gauge when “speaking up” is the lesson and example that needs to be set for their children as they engage others with different views.

Helsel: Parents can help challenge these other perspectives by pointing out differences and making them seem normal. For instance, be intentional about the kinds of books your family checks out from the library or reads together at night. Choose books that show a variety of families and perspectives, so that kids have a broader understanding for what makes a family. Take time to respond if you hear your child say something that seems to suggest a more limited view, such as saying something like “a boy can only marry a girl” or “that kid is weird because they are ___ [fill in the blank with a religion or a quality deemed different].” Ask them to share why they think that way, and invite them to consider who gets to make the rules for what counts as normal or weird. Encourage them to see how differences exist among us, and that only makes us more interesting.

For you, and for many parents, teaching children to honor diversity is a truly spiritual work. As such, forgiveness is a vital concept. How can parents go about forgiving themselves and others, and how and when should they seek forgiveness from others (and even from their children)?

Helsel: I’m a fan of saying I’m sorry. It helps to set an example for our kids when we can admit to our mistakes. Saying I’m sorry shows that we can reflect on our own behavior and see it from a different point of view. Even if we have good intentions, we can hurt another’s feelings, and asking forgiveness means that we are trying to mend the relationship. I like to refer to it as “not being my best self,” which is something that I think my kids can understand. When they need to say sorry for having done something wrong, I want them to see that apologizing doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but that you acted in a way that wasn’t at your best. This also helps kids imagine themselves living better, living up to the best image they have of themselves.

Harris: I agree with Carolyn wholeheartedly on this—ditto.

For parents, particularly white parents and parents of other majority groups, seeking to increase their own understanding and engagement, the amount of resources available can be overwhelming as well as the pressure to do what others are doing—everyone has a list of books you should read and social media is full of photos of friends attending marches. While in many ways the abundance is a gift, it can be paralyzing. How can parents set their own path for personal growth?

Harris: I think one way for white and other majority parents to begin is to commit to something. Start. We can become so paralyzed that we do nothing. So, whether it is buying a children’s book a month or attending a program or even becoming more involved in your local community—the best way is to start. It seems simple enough but we adults can make it so hard because we desire to be right, politically correct, or whatever other word you’d like to use. You will find your way as you begin—so begin! And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Helsel: One way parents can begin is to do it in community. There are book clubs and other organizations that host events like book discussions to help people gather around a shared purpose. I also encourage parents to think about their own gifts and areas of influence. If you are already involved in your child’s school, how can you talk about how the school is addressing diversity? Is there a group at your local library who wants to read a book together? There are even virtual book groups available that you can join. The list of resources can be overwhelming, but choosing to jump in where you are may be the best place to start.

For non-white families or those with religious or sexual differences, self-care is important, particularly in times when the onslaught of societal conflict is overwhelming. How can parents be mindful of this and proactive—for themselves and their children?

Harris: Oftentimes BiPOC families are so engaged with trying to survive that we can forget to live. Stopping to take inventory of what we need can feel like a luxury—the semantics and narrative around self-care can be challenging. It is not. It is a necessity. So, I encourage these families in particular to take a moment and pause. Think about what gives you life? What makes you laugh? When do you see your loved ones most happy? These are the activities and experiences that one should work on to replicate. Replenishing the minds, bodies, and souls of a family are integral to not just surviving but thriving.

Helsel: Self-care is key, but it doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. If you and your family are already dealing with constant microaggressions because of your race or the make-up of your family, then it is important to be part of a community that shares that struggle with you. It is helpful to be reminded that you are not in this alone, and that others are also working to make a difference in the world. Being part of communities that are working for justice can give families the sense that change is possible.

Other forms of self-care include taking time for fun together. While working for justice as a family can feel empowering, it can also be exhausting, so focusing on downtime as an opportunity to recharge and rest is also really important.

For white families, as issues of racial violence and white supremacy recede from the news, there can be the tendency (an effect of white privilege) to “go back to normal” or think and talk about diversity less. How can parents avoid this cycle of apathy?

Helsel: Stay engaged by continuing to be in relationships with people of color. If white families do not have friends who are people of color, it is easy to “go back to normal” when race is not trending. But once you care about someone who is impacted by racism, then you can never go back. What affects one of us affects all of us, and until racism has ended we are all in this together. Continue to do the reading, learning from people of color in books and movies, and keep up with your friendships. We all need one another to do this work.

Harris: I agree with Carolyn here. I would add that allies are needed in this work and to be a good ally you have to constantly evolve. BiPOC people cannot rid the world of racism on their own—our allies are also integral to this fight.

How do you parent effectively around issues of diversity when two parents disagree in their views or approach?


Harris: When parents disagree (on a particular issues) I think they should acknowledge it with their children (if age appropriate). I think showing how people love each other yet still disagree on things can be a great teaching moment. I also believe it is important to show children that they too may have an opinion or thought that differs from those that they care about—and that this is okay. In addition, parents can also help their children see that they must come to terms with their own feelings and experiences. However, I think parents need to agree on a course of action that does not harm their child(ren) even when they disagree.

Helsel: One reason parents may have different approaches is that they have grown up in different cultures, and sharing stories that help each other better understand these differences can help with bridging the gap. For parents to work together, they need to be open to listening to one another and to the concerns and hopes each one brings to parenting. What do you hope for in raising your children? What do you fear? What is your best case scenario for how your child grows up? And most importantly, how will you each cope with your child not meeting your expectations? Celebrating the diversity in the world must begin with ourselves; we need to acknowledge how we each are different, and accept the differences present in our own families.

What can parents do when their teen (or even young child) has views (or ways of presenting them) that are different from their own (or even offensive to the parent)?

Helsel: I firmly believe that one of our deepest needs is to know we are loved. While our children may know that we love them, they may not always feel that we like them (I know they definitely do not always like us!). If a parent is finding a hard time connecting with their child because of the way the child is presenting themself, it may be because the child seems so different from the parent. In that situation, we can begin by acknowledging the discomfort of the unfamiliar, recognizing that we are learning new things all the time, and it may be time to learn something from our child. What may seem to offend at first may reveal itself as a new way of thinking about things. Approach the situation with an attitude of “not knowing,” asking genuinely curious questions to get to know what your child is thinking.

If, after further discussion, your child has views that are offensive because they express an attitude that is racist, sexist, or discriminatory in other ways, then take time to ask questions about why they believe this way, and let them know why you find their views offensive. If a child says something offensive but they did not realize it was offensive, take the time to explain the larger history behind the phrase or saying so they can understand why it would hurt someone’s feelings.

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