Help your kids stay vulnerable, humble, and motivated to include others.
I’m a parent of three children, ages 8, 10, and 13, with mixed identities. We’re Brown first- and second-generation Americans descended from Indian and Pakistani immigrants.
As a result, I’ve been keenly aware of how my kids are relating to their identities as they engage in their own paths of self-discovery.
Each has grappled in their own way with understanding how they “fit” into their surroundings. They code-switch and accentuate aspects of their identity like race, family background, and family culture to better assimilate in their communities.
When we traveled around the world as a family for a year, we all got a lot of practice in code-switching techniques. In each country, we accentuated the aspects of our identity that helped us assimilate, to be included by the community as one of their own instead of transactional tourists.
For example, in the 4-plus months that we traveled through Central and South America, we leaned into our Spanish-speaking skills and brown skin to facilitate friendships with locals.
In Cuba, we were proud when we were mistaken for Cubanos and relished an Indian shopkeeper’s delight when our bargaining language switched from Spanish to Hindi.
We loved feeling like locals but were aware of our differences, a balance that kept us culturally humble and hungry to learn.
The feeling of inclusion is powerful, yet it’s easy to take for granted when you’re used to it. Perhaps the best way to capture the power of inclusivity is to remember the painful feeling of its opposite.
Recall the hurt of realizing you weren’t invited to the birthday party or weren’t welcome to sit at the “cool” lunch spot at school. Remember those moments when you weren’t let in on the secret or didn’t get the “inside joke” that others shared?
Exclusion stings. It makes us feel like we are the “other.” We aren’t extended the acceptance, approval, and empathy afforded to those who are included.
In addition to the feeling of exclusion, we can look to science.
A sense of belonging makes us feel that we aren’t alone, increasing our ability to cope more effectively with hardships.
In other words, the stronger the connections and ties are to the communities we’re exposed to and identify with, the more resilient and empathetic we are likely to become.
Here’s the catch. If we find inclusion and a sense of belonging only in like-minded people, we perpetuate implicit biases and discrimination.
Put another way, creating “inclusion” through the act of excluding others falsely empowers a few while harming the larger community.
For instance, the concept of patriotism hinges upon whether someone feels a sense of loyalty and belonging for a particular country. In today’s deeply fearful and politically polarized climate, some perpetuate the rhetoric that patriotism is reserved for a subset of similar and like-minded people.
They feel more included when they create or condone laws and policies that exclude others to better protect their own interests, and they do so at the expense of truly strengthening our country.
American kids with mixed identities like mine must now decide if they belong here. Are they included in the same protections and opportunities? Which parts of themselves do they need to accentuate or hide in order to assimilate?
Regardless of political affiliations, many American people are questioning whether they are “American enough.” They may even feel insecure about whether they belong in this country, whether they are the “other.”
How can we ever expect them to love America when their identity as Americans is constantly being challenged?
Creating “inclusion” through the act of excluding others falsely empowers a few while harming the larger community.
I don’t have a quick fix to any of this, but affirming diversity and creating a culture of inclusivity with our children is a good start. It’s a positive step for them as individuals and a deeply necessary one for our larger community.
Below are three ideas to build a healthy culture of inclusion with your kids.
Involving children in various and diverse groups allows them to practice social and emotional skills. This gives them the opportunity to elevate their own self-discovery by relating to others who are different in some ways and similar in others.
You can build community as a family for a double dose of inclusivity. Being and doing together as a family in a consistently safe environment creates security and a sense of belonging. With that foundation, children are more likely to stay vulnerable, humble, and motivated to include others in their interests.
Ask your child about a community figure they’re grateful for or interested in. Brainstorm a project or event (big or small) to include others in an act of thanks.
For example, your child could choose a local grocer, postal worker, healthcare professional, or first responder. Bring the community together to support or appreciate this individual with a card, a cake, or even a block party.
Creating a regular practice to thank people is an act that changes hearts and minds and brings communities together.
Get curious about others
Teaching children to find similarities is important, but the goal isn’t to hide or diminish our differences.
When children can recognize both similarities and differences, they’re motivated to get curious and expand their own frame of reference.
Expose children to people, places, and cultures that are different from them and their daily environments through travel, movies, books, and more.
Stereotypes perpetuate unconscious or implicit bias.
Helping children understand that the traits of an individual can’t be applied to an entire group helps combat an “us” versus “them” mentality.
As a family, pick a stereotype and find examples of messages that reinforce the stereotype.
For example, our family started a “gender jar.” The challenge was to jot down messages from people, media, and more that referenced gender stereotypes and put those notes in the gender jar.
We collected examples during the day and talked about them at night to encourage reflection.
Creating a culture of inclusivity at home starts with opening your heart and mind to the perspectives, experiences, and values of others.
By simply stepping outside of the familiar and getting curious about others, you’re showing your kids what it means to appreciate both the differences and similarities that make communities vibrant, rich, and unique.
Aila Malik, a lawyer by schooling and nonprofit executive by trade, has been a change agent in her community and the nonprofit sector for over 2 decades. Malik earned her BS in environmental science from UC Santa Barbara and her JD from Santa Clara Law School. She’s received recognition for her leadership, activism, and tireless service.