Instill an appreciation for people who are different than you

During the holidays, our hearts are open. We feel connected by a universal feeling of celebration. We share smiles with strangers, give cheers with friends, and appreciate our loved ones in ways we often don’t during the rest of the year. It’s the perfect time to teach our kids about empathy, tolerance, and generosity, and to instill an appreciation for people who are different than us. Here are four ways to help kids broaden their emotional repertoire and celebrate differences this holiday season.

1. Volunteer to help people in need

Nothing teaches empathy like putting your kids in someone else’s shoes. We often live inside our own community bubbles, so breaking out of our bubbles and experiencing a totally different take on how to live life is eye opening for our kids. And the more differences in people and families that our kids experience, the more accepting they will be of differences in general.

A great way to practice empathy is to volunteer. Through volunteering, kids gain a wider perspective on the world, and get the message that they should respect everyone, even those who live or look differently than they do. Volunteering is also empowering for kids because they leave with the take-home message that they have value, and that they can make a difference in someone’s life.

It doesn’t always have to be a big formal outing to volunteer. Sometimes, it’s simply being kind and helpful to people at home, school or in the community. Encourage your child to help the person who sits next to them in math class or invite a child over who is new, or reach out to a child who might be going through a rough time. 

Not everyone is born with the same capacity for empathy. Some kids naturally have more than others. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be learned.  All kids are capable of empathy, whether it comes naturally or not.

The best way to teach empathy and kindness is to simply model it yourself. Offer to pick up your neighbor’s papers while they are out of town or walk the dog of the elderly woman down the street. Bake cookies for your neighbors, hold the door for the person behind you at the store, and offer for someone to go ahead in the grocery line. If this is the way you live your life, so will your kids. 

2. Practice being a good sport

While watching football or another sport with your kids this winter, watch your own language and reaction when your team misses a goal. Instead of blaming a referee for a bad play, make a joke or say something like, “Well, that didn’t go well for our team. Maybe we will have better luck next time.” If you witness poor sportsmanship—like players fighting or name calling—talk about how the players could have handled it better, and discuss what it might say about the player’s or coach’s character.

To drive the message of tolerance home even more, consider signing your child up for a unified sports team through your city’s recreation department. Athletes of all abilities play as teammates against other integrated teams with opportunity to compete in Special Olympics.

3. Get together with a family from a different culture 

It can take practice getting comfortable talking with someone from a different culture, or whose first language is not English, but don’t let moments of feeling uncomfortable stop you or your kids from reaching out.  Kids in general are uncomfortable with things they are not familiar with—like someone who looks different or sounds different. It’s less an issue of racism and more an issue of feeling comfortable.   

That’s why it is so important to expose your kids to all kinds of people early on and throughout their childhood. Doing so teaches tolerance and acceptance. It helps kids see that different isn’t wrong, it’s interesting.

To drive the message home, find common ground with your new friends. This shows your kids that people who are not like us on the outside often have the same feelings or wants and needs on the inside.     

4. Attend diverse holiday celebrations 

An easy way to introduce your kids to different cultures is attending various holiday celebrations around town. Consider going to a different church to see how they celebrate their culture’s winter holidays. For example, attend the menorah lighting to celebrate Chanukah in Old Town Square in Fort Collins on December 5 at 4pm or find a Kwanza event. Or, attend International Night at the Library in Fort Collins where students and community members share their experiences of other countries or their home country. The event is held on the second Tuesday at the Old Town Library and every fourth Thursday at the Harmony Library at 6:30pm. Or, head down to Denver to experience even more diverse events.

When attending, use inclusive language when talking about the event and look for opportunities that show acceptance. If your child makes an insensitive statement, explain how making quick judgments and applying stereotypes always divides rather than unites. 

5. Encourage giving, not just receiving

Giving is never more on our minds than during the holiday season. It is a time when families and friends come together to share not only gifts, but themselves with each other. Kids may be focused on their Santa wish list, but don’t be fooled. They are also soaking in the magic of the season—the joy and satisfaction that comes from giving to others and spending quality time with those they love. As people, when we give, we feel good.  We are social creatures by nature. If someone appreciates us, we feel joy.

This season, open your heart, practice empathy, and celebrate all the wonderful differences that we see in our loved ones and the people we encounter in our community.