How to Help Kids Make Sense of Similarities and Differences in Their World
“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.” - Maya Angelou
Young children continuously explore and experience the world around them, learning and growing daily. The early years are critical for child development; 90-95% of a child’s brain has developed by the time she is 5 years old. As the parent of a four-month-old, I see this every day. Although my daughter is still an infant, I am amazed by how much she’s able to do – and how her growth and development are constantly enhanced.
Children learn by watching, listening, playing, and exploring, and through these experiences, they make sense of the world around them. One way they do this is by categorizing: picking up on things that are similar and things that are different – and grouping them as such.
Much of this categorization happens in relationship to themselves. Perhaps you’ve heard your child say, “He’s tall like me,” or “She has brown hair like I do!” Physical traits are clearly visible, and young children find them easy to identify and sort, helping them make sense of themselves and of others in their world.
Questioning is another critical way children learn about their world, and, again, a child’s questions may often relate to attributes that he can easily see. As parents, we may be worried or embarrassed to hear a child ask, “Why is she in a wheelchair?” or “Why does that boy look so funny?” It’s important to remember, however, that children’s questions stem from curiosity, interest, and innocence. Children love to ask questions, and we should always answer them honestly and truthfully.
Although it’s age-appropriate for young children to question physical similarities and differences, it’s important for us to teach them that it’s what’s inside a person that matters.
One of my favorite activities to illustrate this idea is to gather together a variety of eggs: small and large, white and brown, speckled and solid. I ask the children to describe the differences among the eggs, and we make quite a long list! Then, we crack the eggs open, and to the surprise of many pre-schoolers, all the eggs are the same on the inside. The lesson, of course, is that people are like eggs: We may look different on the outside, but on the inside, we’re all the same – and it’s what’s on the inside that matters.
This important lesson is one that we Jews have heard for thousands of years. As Rabbi Meir said in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.” This beautiful saying is priceless, not only to teach our children but also to embody ourselves. It’s important to practice what we preach because our children are always watching and listening to us. If we are not respectful and inclusive, if we are not kind and considerate, and if we are not open and accepting, we cannot expect our children to learn these central Jewish values.
As children grow and learn about similarities and differences between themselves and others, we must continually teach them to treat everyone with chesed (kindness) and rachmanut (compassion) – and do the same ourselves.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.