In response to the events following George Floyd’s death, my son’s first grade Montessori teacher hosted a family Zoom lesson on “Difference, Respect, and Empathy.” The lesson focused on accepting, celebrating, and learning about those different from us and emphasized the importance of empathy and respect for all. The teacher explained that she would not bring up the subject of police violence, but if students brought it up she was prepared to address it through the lens of what people are doing to stand up to injustice and build a caring community.
I learned so much from this lesson.
First, the teacher showed three large cards, each with a printed word: “Empathy”, “Diversity”, or “Respect.” She reviewed the meaning of each word and then read the children’s book Last Stop on Market Street (an award-winning bestseller). After reading the book, she revisited the words and led a group discussion in which the students shared how they thought the characters showed empathy, diversity, and respect.
In the days following this lesson, I kept asking myself, “How do empathy, diversity, and respect show up, not in books, but in my parenting? Not in resource lists that fill my inbox, but in the classes I teach? Not in my ideals, but in my relationships?
Those questions set me on a path of looking deeper into my own anti-racist journey, and I read My Personal Guide Towards Progress on Juneteenth. In the article, Annie Pak tells us that “eliminating systemic racism will not be easy, but committing to an anti-racist journey is feasible for every person.” She helped me clarify that my personal commitment means using my role as a parent of three boys, parent educator, and speaker to teach the next generation empathy, diversity, and respect.
To teach empathy to our children, it is important to adopt a parenting approach that is not about winning power struggles. Instead, focus on seeing the world through their eyes and modeling collaboration, compassion, and empathy. Children who are raised with this approach and see empathetic behavior in practice have an easier time understanding what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
To help children appreciate our diverse world, expose them to positive and meaningful experiences with people that look different from them and choose diverse media, movies, and books. Parents can facilitate this learning by pointing out kindness to others; injustice; and how to think critically about what they hear, read, and see. When racism shows up in our lives or in the media, ask your child “What does the neighbor, reporter, author, or filmmaker want us to believe?” and “What do you think is true?”
Resolving conflicts is all about showing respect by acknowledging when we played a role in causing the problem—whether a child taking a toy from a friend or an adult acting from a place of unconscious bias, privilege, or racism. Parents that model conflict resolution are teaching kids to respect others and take responsibility for their actions. You can illustrate this behavior by saying things like, “I did something you didn’t like. How did it make you feel?” and “I’m sorry. What can I do to make it better?”
Remember that your child is on their own anti-racist journey. Meet them where they are, so you can guide them to be open-minded and independent thinkers. Help them understand their journey by narrating your own process including how you may be responsible for contributing to a system of racism and what you can do to make it better.
Our partners at Common Sense Media have additional resources to help you teach your children empathy, diversity, and respect including the article How White Parents Can Use Media to Raise Anti-Racist Kids and a list of Coretta-Scott King Book Award winners.
The Center for Children and Youth can help you establish healthy family routines, connect with other parents, plan activities at home, and receive critical assistance when you need it most. If you need support or guidance during this time, or are facing other challenges as a parent, we are here for you. Contact us at CenterforChildrenandYouth.org or call 415-359-2443.