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Help children celebrate and embrace differences

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Adapted from "Touchpoints Three to Six." Reprinted by arrangement with Perseus Publishing. All rights reserved.

"My 8-year-old wants to know what a terrorist is and if he would recognize one on the street."

"I'm concerned that my 12-year-old will start to 'profile' Arab-Americans. I don't want him to become hateful or form a bad picture of all Arabs."

In the wake of Sept. 11, parents have had to deal with so many unsettling issues — including children's questions about ethnic and religious differences. Many want to know how early they can start to prepare a child for the job of accepting differences.

At about age 4, when children become more aware of their influence on the world, they become more aware of differences between themselves and others. As they play together, they will ask: "Why is your skin dark? Did you paint it?" "Why is your hair curly?"

The curious questioning reveals the worries that come with this new recognition of differences.

A 4-year-old will wish that her difference makes her more powerful, but she will also fear that it weakens her.

All this peaks at age 5, as children become more aware of themselves and their effect on others. "Why am I different? Is it OK to be different? Will I be loved if I'm different?"

Once this awareness sets in, a child needs to know that her differences are accepted. Only then can she feel safe and important.

Awareness of differences leads to attaching values to various characteristics. Children this age compare and compete openly because they want so much to be like those they admire. Friends and friendships become more selective as a child recognizes and can express the individuality of the friend: "She's so funny. Her face wrinkles up when she laughs."

Teasing about differences is not only inevitable, it is a way that children can try out observations and learn how others react to differences. At the same time, they are learning how to accept their own differences. As they compare, some differences may be hard to face. Sometimes, teasing is a child's attempt to push away differences that call up uncertainties about herself.

Parents must be prepared for the teasing and ready to accept and support the child. Parents of children of an ethnic minority, especially, need to have worked out their own issues so they can see them from the child's side; the prejudices parents have endured can add to the pain of seeing their child hurt.

When a child comes home in tears over teasing, a parent would do well first to acknowledge the hurt and then show examples of strength: "It really hurts, doesn't it? I can remember how much it hurt me at your age. I cried. My mom said, 'Don't show them how it hurts. Save it for home. Try to stand proud and let them see that you feel good about yourself.' "

Although we have begun to make advances toward acceptance of ethnic and religious differences, we adults still need to face our underlying prejudices more openly. Only then can we set a new pattern for our children and move beyond tolerance to valuing, and even enjoying, differences.

Here are some suggestions for helping children learn to value differences:

Don't make derogatory statements about other ethnic or socioeconomic groups.

Value friends from a range of ethnic, cultural and social groups.

Introduce dolls, stories and toys reflecting a variety of nationalities, cultures and races.

Don't overprotect children; face feelings openly.

Set a model of tolerance and respect within the family.

Model a realistic, positive sense of self. Self-acceptance is a first step toward tolerance of differences in others.

Try to avoid overreactions to teasing while expressing appropriate disapproval of such behavior.

Learn about and cherish your own family, culture, history and values. Share them with your children and teach them to be proud of the differences that make them special.

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton heads the Brazelton Foundation, which encourages and supports education and training programs that implement preventive health-care practices for children and families. For more information, visit www.brazelton.org or write to: Brazelton Foundation, 4031 University Drive, Suite 200, Fairfax, VA 22030.

Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is co-author of "Touchpoints Three to Six" and associate director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.