For Monica Gunaratnam, superhero flicks and movies set in space are more than just escapist entertainment. They’ve also influenced this Markham mother’s take on the world, and how she hopes her two daughters see it. “We want [them] to see that we’re all human, but we all have different characteristics that make us special,” says Gunaratnam, whose daughters are six and three.
But while she and her husband try to teach their girls what they have in common with their peers, that doesn’t mean they ignore differences. The couple are both of South Asian descent, though their cultural backgrounds and faiths differ, and their community includes people of diverse ethnicities, religious practices, sexual orientations and gender identities. Gunaratnam says she welcomes the questions that her kids, particularly her free-spirited firstborn, ask about those differences—even if it means delving into complex issues. “You don’t want them to ever feel like, ‘Oh, Mom doesn’t want to answer that,’” she says.
That’s exactly the right approach, says Joanne Lomanno-Aprile, a principal in the York Region District School Board and former Toronto elementary-school teacher who holds a master’s degree in Equity Studies and Sociology. One of her top priorities, she says, is to ensure teachers create an environment where students can be vulnerable and open enough to challenge their thinking and deconstruct inherent biases. Of course, opportunities to do that don’t disappear when school’s out. We asked Lomanno-Aprile to break down ways that parents can teach their children to understand and appreciate diversity at home.
Talk it out
“The most important piece is to talk about diversity,” says Lomanno-Aprile. “We’re supposed to see differences and appreciate, respect and understand that.” She and Gunaratnam agree that they want their children to keep asking questions. Lomanno-Aprile says the key is to answer in a way that’s digestible for the child’s age and stage. If one parent is more adept than the other at doing that, then they should try responding in front of their partner, so that they’ll know where to begin next time.
Questions related to diversity are bound to come up when you’re out in public. When they do, Lomanno-Aprile says the key is not to scold your children or urge them to be quiet. Instead, stick to the facts. This approach will reinforce to them that whatever they’ve noticed is not a big deal. If a child asks why two men are holding hands, she’d respond simply by saying: “Because they love each other, like Daddy and I do.”
Lead by example
At the end of the day, be the hero your kids see swooping in to call out injustice. If a family member makes a derogatory remark, speak up—even if they’re from another generation, don’t mean to offend, don’t know any better or aren’t aware that your kids are within earshot. “I’ll say in front of [the kids], ‘You can’t say something like that,’” says Lomanno-Aprile. “Then later they’ll ask why, and we’ll have a talk about it.”
Turn the tables
Jokes or phrases a child picks up at recess might be in stark contrast with the way you speak at home. If a child puts down or pokes fun at another group, explain why those comments can be hurtful. Lomanno-Aprile suggests that asking how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of such comments can help you illustrate your point.
Tell a story
Choose storybooks that feature families that don’t resemble yours. Lomanno-Aprile says it’s important to make a conscious effort to expose children to different cultures, families or religious backgrounds. Reading about them can lead to opportunities to learn more.
One recommendation from both Lomanno-Aprile and Gunaratnam? Wonder, the 2012 children’s novel by R.J. Palacio that inspired the 2017 movie starring Julia Roberts. Gunaratnam’s daughter immediately connected to the protagonist, a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome. “[She] related because [she thought], ‘He wants to be an astronaut. I like space.’ She found a similarity, that they both like space—that’s what I want to encourage, that your differences are not that big of a deal.”
Most important, remember that the goal is to teach your children to understand other people’s feelings. “It’s about having empathy, not [about] feeling sorry for somebody,” says Lomanno-Aprile. “That’s not what we need to teach our kids. We need to appreciate what people bring to our world and that people are different. We’re not lesser because we are different. We are all the same, and we are different. It’s not an either-or kind of thing.”
Ultimately, Gunaratnam wants her girls to know that people are more alike than different, a theme that comes up repeatedly in the sci-fi stories her family loves. “At the end of the day, if there was ever a threat that came to Earth, we would all stand together. It’s a very positive way of looking at it.”