Teaching teens to respect diversity: Here's what to know

Respecting diversity involves understanding and valuing the perspectives from all backgrounds.
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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

Respecting diversity involves understanding and valuing the perspectives, behaviors, and needs of people from all backgrounds. The world is a great tapestry of different cultures, abilities, beliefs, genders, and preferences, and the ability to respect others sets the tone for the way a person approaches their interactions and relationships. As society becomes more diverse, your adolescent will most likely be exposed to people from various backgrounds, and it is good to teach her about the value of respecting differences.

Expose your middle-schooler to different cultures and backgrounds. You are a great influence in your child’s life, and by having diverse friendships and being respectful of people’s views and backgrounds, you will be providing her with a valuable lesson in tolerance. You can also help build your child’s ability to respect differences by encouraging her to participate in activities that promote diversity and nurture tolerance. Find local cultural events, like parades or celebrations, and bring the whole family to enjoy the festivities. These types of events can be a fun way to introduce your adolescent to new cultures and help her gain awareness of the diverse history of our country. You may also want to sign her up for summer camp, an art workshop, or a peer program that includes people from all backgrounds and abilities. For example, there are many programs out there that allow children to mentor or become “buddies” with children with special needs. You can contact your local children’s hospital to learn more about which programs exist in your community as well.

Teach your adolescent about the need to be open-minded. People all have different experiences, backgrounds, customs, opinions, points of view, genders, and preferences, and it’s good to talk to your child regularly about the importance of being accepting of others. Neurologist Judy Willis says that helping your adolescent become open-minded about differences can build her mental flexibility, problem-solving abilities, and sense of tolerance. Willis suggests that you talk to your middle-schooler about the beliefs of those involved in social problems and ask her to consider what historical figures would think about these current issues.

Talk about bullying. Bullying is a growing concern for children at this age, and by teaching your child about respecting and honoring differences, you are also helping to prepare her to respond to bullying in an assertive way Bullying is often linked to prejudice, as the targets of bullies are often people who are considered “different” by their peers. Name-calling, physical harassment, hurtful comments online, and being left out of cliques are some of the most common ways middle-school students are exposed to bullying. Education consultant Jennifer Miller recommends that you prepare your adolescent with responses to bullying behavior. Often young people are caught off-guard and don’t know how to respond to bullying. Miller suggests that you work together on what your child can say to stop the harassment and allow her to remain respectful of herself and others. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying, “Stop, you know you’re wrong,” with some assertion. Or she can say, “You know you are out of line,” if the bully is harassing another person, and then she can leave the area and tell an adult who can help the victim. By reminding your adolescent that others’ opinions and feelings are valid even when they are different from her own, you are helping to raise an open-minded child who has the courage and skills needed to stand up against bullying.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author, and Educational Psychologist.