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I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who wishes to be merely tolerated. And yet, the word tolerance is often used when we speak about diversity.

To tolerate something involves a type of sufferance or permission, an allowing something else to be but only due to the exercising of patience for this existence.

Living our lives tolerating people we consider to be different to us is one way to consider diversity. Understanding and being inclusive of everyone’s uniqueness in terms of multiple factors including those such as race, gender, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religion, or other ideologies, is another.

But what if we were to go further and embrace a more generous mindset when it comes to difference, looking to celebrate it, and to teach this art of celebration to children?

I believe that this can be realised through the stories we choose to tell, considering the content and being deliberate in the way in which it is delivered, and the freedom that we allow children in terms of their unique responses, and their own narrative creations.

But is it essential to load our storytelling with such a sense of gravitas?

An examination of some of the effects of a lack of diversity in stories would suggest so:

A recent report on “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Impacts of Racism on the Foundations of Health” (Shonkoff, Slopen & Williams, 2021) discusses the effects that early experiences have on children’s biological systems and highlights constant exposure to discrimination from an early age as being associated with lower self-esteem and diminished psychological well-being. Being subjected to discrimination can also activate the stress response systems inside the body which can undermine early learning, and if not mitigated, advance the development of chronic medical conditions and premature ageing. 

A New York Times article on the books boys tend to read, noted the lack of emotional complexity, negotiation, “friendship dilemmas or internal conflict” within the texts. This limited resourcing may be a contributing factor in the marked difference between the relational skills of boys and girls with boys scoring “lower than girls of the same age on virtually all measures of empathy and social skills” (Whippman, 2021). It may also contribute to mental health issues due to the reinforcement of what are considered to be masculine norms which results in a lack of intimate friendships and support structures, placing adolescent boys at a higher risk of death by suicide than girls.

Research considering protagonists in stories was conducted at Princeton University in New Jersey and Emory University in Georgia and the researchers found that “male overrepresentation may contribute to ‘symbolic annihilation’ whereby girls may come to regard themselves as less relevant and consequential in society, which may lead to a lesser sense of belonging and self-worth.” (Chadwick, 2021).

The author, Matt de la Peña discussing his book titled “Love” in a January 2018 article “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness”, detailed how he was discouraged from including an illustration of a despondent young boy hiding beneath a piano with his dog as his parents argue across the living room, with publishers describing it as ”a little too heavy for children”. De la Peña insisted on the image being included, stating that he felt that without it, the book would fail to “acknowledge any notion of adversity” and therefore fail to represent “an uncomfortable number of children out there right now...crouched beneath a metaphorical piano” (De la Peña 2018). 

It’s evident that the stories we tell matter immeasurably.

In stories, children can find themselves and celebrate this discovery. Farrah Serouk (2017) says that to “find a fragment of yourself in the pages of a book is a profound and powerful experience; it holds a mirror up to your existence and suggests that you’re not alone. For children in their formative years this is life-affirming.”

In stories, children can discover others and celebrate them. Professor Jennifer Steele of York University, who conducted research with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the automatic racial attitudes of children explains that “in early childhood what we know is that children tend to be egocentric and socio centric. They think that they’re great and that other people who are like them are great too. That’s why we recommend using interventions that don’t challenge these beliefs, but instead promote the fact that people from different backgrounds or who look different than them often have a lot in common and they can be great too” (York University 2017 in Lumgair, 2021). 

A further aspect of diversity to consider is that of difficult topics and emotions. We need to ask ourselves whether we are open to the exploration of heavy subject matter and the expression of all emotions, not only those we consider easy to manage. Jeremy Sydik (2016), in his paper “Hey, Where’s the Monster? How a Storytelling Game Is Played in a Preschool Classroom”, says that current culture promotes the “viewpoint that children’s stories, media, and games should avoid dark themes entirely”, arguing that “this approach would seem to diminish the richness of experience that children bring to their understandings of the world as well as possibly deprive them of valuable tools in working cognitively through real concerns in their lives” (Sydik, 2016 in Lumgair, 2021).

The author, Dan Pink, in his recent book titled “The Power of Regret” says that we need to equip children with the ability to deal with negative emotions so that they are not “captured and brought down” by them but rather are able to use them to “clarify and improve” their lives (Skipper, 2022).

Some final aspects of diversity to consider are the range of responses to story and the stories expressed by children. Do we accept the thoughts, ideas, and opinions children communicate rather than pursuing what we consider to be the ‘correct’ response? If we bear in mind the divergent backgrounds children come from and the resulting varying stories that they live out daily, it would be logical to conclude that they would not offer a standardised response to a given situation or story but rather respond with their own perspectives. The same applies to the stories they will craft and tell.

As we celebrate children in all their uniqueness, welcoming their contributions, they will in turn learn to celebrate themselves.

As we celebrate other people in all their uniqueness, children will share in this celebration and learn to do the same.

This is how we sow curiosity, joy, and openness in the lives of children. This is how we cultivate justice.

References

Chadwick, J. (2021) “Children’s books are still dominated by MALE characters and female protagonists are underrepresented, scientists claim after analysing 3,000 stories.” Mail Online, Associated Newspapers Limited. Accessed on 5/3/2022 at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-10313431/Childrens-books-dominated-male-characters-analysis-reveals.html?ito=email_share_article-drawer 

De la Peña, M. (2018) “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness.” Sacramento: Time USA. Accessed on 6/7/2020 https://time.com/5093669/why-we-shouldnt-shield-children-from-darkness/ 

Lumgair, H. (2021) “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood: A Practical Guide.” London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Serrouk, F. (2017) “Young Children Need Stories in Which They Can Recognise Their
Own Lives.” London: Maze Media. Accessed on 7/7/2020 at https://www.teachwire.net/news/young-children-need-stories-in-which-they-can-recognise-their-own-lives-and 

Shonkoff, J.P. (2021) “How racism in early life can affect long-term health.” Knowable Magazine, Annual Reviews. Accessed on 4/03/2022 at https://knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2021/how-racism-early-life-affect-long-term-health 

Shonkoff, J. P., Slopen, N., & Williams, D. R. (2021). “Early childhood adversity, toxic stress, and the impacts of racism on the foundations of health.” Annual Review of Public Health, 42, 115-134. Accessed on 2/03/2021 at https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-090419-101940 

Skipper, C. (2022) ”How to Use Your Regrets for Good” Condé Nast. Accessed on 4/03/2022 at https://www.gq.com/story/daniel-pink-the-power-of-regret 

Whippman, R. (2021) “What We Are Not Teaching Boys About Being Human.” The New York Times. Accessed on 04/03/2022 at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/06/opinion/boys-gender-books-culture.html 

York University (2017) “Children Show Implicit Racial Bias from a Young Age, Research Finds:
New Research Sheds Light on How Racial Prejudice Develops.” Rockville: ScienceDaily. 

Accessed on 7/7/2020 at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171127152100.htm  

About the author:

Helen Lumgair is a Montessori teacher, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator and Education Consultant. She has worked with families and in settings for over twenty years. Helen created the framework and initial lesson plans of the empathy-focused Think Equal curriculum which was recognised with a 2020 WISE award for innovation and the addressing of global educational challenges. She has lectured globally on its implementation.

She authored a chapter on using the process of narrative to develop empathy in early childhood in the book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners” and then wrote the book “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood.” She is passionate about developing holistic educational strategies to meet the needs of every learner, and about stories.

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