An Early Start: Talking to Children About Diversity
By: Erin Issac, DMD
“But are those healthy gums? Why do they look like that?” asked my 8-year-old patient as I showed him pictures in a chairside flipbook about oral health. We were discussing cavities, but besides seeing the cavities in one picture, my patient, who happened to be a white male, noticed the brown hue on the gums of the patient in the picture.
“Well those are healthy gums for people who look like me,” I said pointing to my skin. “People who have darker skin sometimes have the same dark colors on their gums, but they are just as healthy as pink gums.”
“Oh, ok!” said my patient, and happily moved on to the next thing.
As one of an estimated 250 African American female pediatric dentists in the entire country, my job isn’t only to educate my patients and their parents about oral health and homecare in a quest to make them happy and healthy little humans that’ll become grown humans one day, but I’ve also been given the unique opportunity to teach my patients about our differences in a way that is respectful, educational and engrained into our daily lives.
We’re all aware of the events that have unfolded over the last several months. Besides a worldwide pandemic, there’s also been a movement for equality of historically disenfranchised people, people that look like me. And though a lot has changed over the last several months and decades, there is still a lot of work to be done. I believe that these changes start within our hearts and homes, and from there, we can make changes out in our towns, cities, states, countries and beyond.
But even if and when positive change is made, the only way for it to last is to teach our children of these values so that history doesn’t continue to repeat itself and they don’t find themselves in the same position years from now when they are our age.
But how do we talk to kids about what has always been seen as a touchy topic? Well first and foremost, it’s a touchy topic because we adults make it that way. My little patient asked this question out of a general want to know. He took in the answer and moved on. He genuinely didn’t know, asked and now has that information tucked away in his brain. As adults,
for many reasons, we lose this inquisitive nature, and then the topic becomes “hush-hush.” We’re less likely to learn about people that are different from us, and down the line, this becomes one contributing factor to the widespread inequities and injustices we are witnessing as a community today.
Similarly, as evidenced by answering my patient’s question right away, we shouldn’t shut down kids’ questions about these topics for fear of embarrassment in front of others or say that we’ll talk to them later about it. Later never happens, so answer those questions before everyone forgets and moves on to something else.
Finally, kids mimic everything we say and do and what we don’t say and do. Their brains are sponges from ages 0-7. It’s important to incorporate diversity into their daily lives early so that seeing and respecting others who look different from them is just a way of life. Here are a few ideas:
Books and Toys
Playing with culturally diverse toys, like dolls, and reading diverse books featuring children of color is a great place to start. This allows kids to see and hear positive reflections involving people of color. At your dental practice consider the books, literature and prizes you have available for patients. These simple steps can have a big impact. Books for Diversity and Jambo Books are great resources.
Black or Minority-Owned Businesses and Restaurants
Though COVID-19 has changed our dining and consumer habits, there are still many ways to support small black and minority-owned restaurants. Small businesses in general need support right now, especially restaurants, and even more so minority-owned restaurants. A great option is take-out or delivery from these local establishments. Most cities now have easily searchable lists of these types of businesses and restaurants. Who knows, you may just find a hidden gem or a new cuisine your family loves!
School, Daycare and Places of Worship
There are many ways to learn about different cultures within our daily habits. For example, branching out and attending a different religious ceremony as a family, visiting or enrolling at schools with a diversity-focused curriculum or demographic and attending different social events in the community.
For the most part, you get to choose the doctors and healthcare professionals that take care of your kids. When kids see people of color (POC) in traditionally well-respected and important roles, it shows that POC are able to do and hold very positive and influential roles in society.
With COVID-19, play dates may not be happening quite as much, however, when they return, try finding diverse groups where kids can interact and play with kids who look different than them. Likewise, review the groups you are a part of on social media. Are the voices coming from different backgrounds? If not, try seeking out ones that have input from culturally diverse parents. You may find helpful tips that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise!
Break Bread Together
Whenever you are comfortable with having friends over again, try inviting over families with different racial, cultural or religious backgrounds, and make sure kids are involved! Hearing family stories, traditions and recipes is one of the best ways to understand and relate to each other.
These are just a few basic starting points. One of the most important parental roles includes raising culturally aware and respectful little humans. Starting these conversations early, in an age-appropriate manner, so that they aren’t seen as taboo, and kids will realize we’re all more alike than different. Then and only then will we have a country and world where differences in skin color and cultural background aren’t seen as dividers, but instead as ways to bring us together and become a beautiful, stronger race. The human race.
Dr. Issac a board-certified pediatric dentist in Pittsburgh, PA where she owns and operates Winning Smiles Pediatric Dental Care. She is passionate about oral health’s impact on overall health and enjoys educating her patients and the community through charity events and her social media accounts (Facebook: Winning Smiles Pediatric Dental Care and Instagram: @dr_erin). Dr. Issac is also a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. She can be reached at email@example.com.