It’s Okay to Be Different and Other Important Lessons Our Children Need to Learn

I was asked to give a sermon at First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati and it was recorded. You can watch the video or read the full transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT: Good morning. My name is Laura Stanton and I have been a member of First Church for 3 years. I am part of the “Stuff Family” that is made up of my husband, Steve Duff, and my 2 kids. I need to thank them for being patient with me while I worked on this last week (and last night). I also want to thank my parents and my in-laws for coming this morning to root me on!

When you are on this side of the podium you get a much better appreciation for all the working pieces that come together every week to make a service happen. I appreciate the Worship Committee giving me this opportunity. I also want to thank June for her guidance preparing the service and Jera for incorporating my music requests! Thank you to everyone who made today happen.

Before I dive in, I want to tell you a little bit about my background and upbringing. I am a native Cincinnatian and not surprisingly my favorite restaurants are Skyline, LaRosa’s and Frisch’s. I love watching the Reds play but I have never been to a Bengals game, nor do I desire to do so.

I am from the Eastside and I graduated from Turpin HS. If I were trying to tell someone about my background, the best analogy I have is The Wizard of Oz. Growing up in Anderson Township was a bit like living in Kansas. My world was black, white, and shades of gray. I did not see much diversity. If there was diversity, it wasn’t something we talked about. In fact, like many of you, it was considered somewhat impolite to notice differences. It just wasn’t something you were supposed to do, so I never thought about diversity because I never needed to. Most people were just like me.

After I graduated from HS, I went to Gettysburg College, a small, liberal arts school in PA. For the first time in my life, I realized I was different. I became aware of my Midwestern upbringing, as well as my social economic background. To say it a different way, I become a minority. I was surrounded by people from the East Coast and people that were from a much higher income bracket than my family. For the first time, I didn’t fit in with the people around me. I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore….

I transferred to Cornell University in NY my sophomore year. When I moved into my dorm room, I found myself in the minority again. This time, I was the only white woman on my wing. It was uncomfortable and exciting all at the same time.

During my 3 years at Cornell, I felt like Dorothy living in Oz. I was living in technicolor. I felt energized and engaged. Even now, those 3 years stand out as some of the best years of my life.

Based on my experiences, I have spent most of my adult life trying to better understand how children learn about the world around them. I have studied and researched the role parents, teachers, and other adults play in shaping children’s views about diversity. And today, I want to share with you some of the insights I have learned.

To help structure my message, I will answer 5 basic questions: What? Why? How? When? and Who?

1. What Differences Are We Supposed to Talk About?

When I talk about differences, I am using one word to describe many things. In the book I read earlier, It’s Okay to Be Different, Todd Parr uses many valuable and fun ways to think about differences. With that in mind, I encourage you to reflect and think about how you would describe yourself. If you need help, think about how someone who knows you well would describe you? Think about what makes you unique?

REFLECT: Take just a few moments to think about this……….

I have found that when we talk about diversity, we often do 2 things. First, we start thinking about everyone else and skip the self-reflection. But it’s important for us to recognize who we are and what we bring to the table.

Second, we often think about the demographic differences that divide us: skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, age, ability, etc. But sometimes we forget to think about the more personal and smaller differences, like whether or not you’re a dog or a cat person, if you prefer Marvel or DC Comics, if you’re an introvert or extrovert, or whether you will be cheering for the Eagles or Patriots. Or maybe you could care less! ;-).

It’s also important to mention the many layers of diversity. Really, we should think of differences like an onion. There are layers of things that make us different. At the very core are individual differences, shaped by our biology, personality, and individual quirks. The next layer is about our relationships with others including our partner, spouse, friends, co-workers, etc. The next layer is about family, which is also complicated because that includes the family we grew up in, as well as the family we create. We can keep going, we recognize that every single layer is unique to us. While my focus today is on the individual layer, I want to acknowledge the diversity that exists beyond ourselves.

2. Why Talk About Differences?

If you haven’t noticed, or if you haven’t seen the statistics, our country is changing rapidly. There have been all sorts of Census reports about our demographics, but it’s safe to say that the country you grew up in is not the country your kids and grandkids will experience. The increase in people of color, religious diversity, family composition, and openly gay and transgender individuals are just a few of the ways our country is changing.

To better understand these trends, I encourage you and your family to read a book titled, If America Were a Village by David Smith. In the book, Smith shrinks down the population of America to an imaginary village of 100 people. The metaphor helps children and adults easily understand our country’s differences in terms that are easy to understand.

Another reason to talk about differences is because our UU faith compels us to do so. Remember the 1st and 2nd principles:

1st Principle: We believe that each and every person is important.

2nd Principle: We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.

In order to honor these principles, we need to talk to our kids and grandkids about differences. We now know that telling kids not to notice differences (often called the “colorblind” approach) sends the wrong message. It minimizes differences and suggests that they aren’t important.

Another reason to talk about differences is to send a clear message that there is more than one way of being. Personally, one of my biggest frustrations with traditional religions is the underlying belief structure that declares there is only one way. Only one god. Only one path. This narrow line of thinking is the underlying principle of so many different forms of prejudice, bias, and hatred. Sophia Lyon Fahs, a pioneer of UU Religious Education, said in It Matters What We Believe, “Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.”

Compare that to the belief that differences are okay. This idea provides a worldview that has room for everyone. There are multiple paths and journeys. And all paths are equally good and valid. As Fahs says, these beliefs “nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.”

3. How to Talk About Differences?

To talk about differences, we have to feel comfortable as individuals. We have to be grounded in our own experiences and perspectives. We also need to create an environment where it is safe and comfortable to talk about differences.

One way to make sure we have opportunities to talk about differences with our children is to consider an important educational framework that was created by Emily Style. Her “windows and mirrors” framework is based on the idea that mirrors provide the opportunity to see ourselves and our reality, and therefore, provide a sense of personal validation. Windows, on the other hand, provide us with the opportunity to see differences and learn about other people’s experiences.

As parents and teachers, we should strive to balance the windows and mirrors in our children’s lives. Doing so provides children with an equal understanding of themselves, as well as others. This will help our children understand themselves and their place in the diverse world around them.

This framework helps me make sense of my educational upbringing. I realize I spent 18 years of my life surrounded by mirrors! But fortunately for me, my college experience gave me the opportunity to gaze out many, many windows. Without a doubt, looking out windows and learning about diversity were the most meaningful aspects of my college experience.

This is a good time to think about your home. I have no doubt that you have mirrors around your home. But it’s important to think about windows. Do your kids’ have the opportunity to gaze out windows and learn about someone else’s reality. Take a moment and think about ways you could provide more windows. Some hints are books, toys, movies, music, and invited guests…….

In addition to providing mirrors and windows, we also need some a specific set of tools when we talk about differences. In the late 80s, a progressive group of educators developed an anti-bias approach to cultural diversity. They wanted to do more than simply acknowledge diversity. They wanted to help children learn to embrace, respect, and celebrate differences.

Their anti-bias approach tells us that we need to do 3 things when we talk to our children about differences. We need to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of the differences.
  3. Respect the difference, without judgment.

These elements have to be part of the conversations we have with our children. Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Mai have funny-looking eyes?”

An anti-bias response may be:

Element 1: “I don’t think Mai has funny-looking eyes. She has eyes that are a different shape than yours.” (Acknowledge the difference)

Element 2: “Mai’s eyes are almond-shaped just like her parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes.” (Find a similarity)

Element 3: “Both you and Mai have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes.” (Respect the difference)

REFLECT: Consider a time your child asked a question about a difference that you didn’t know how to answer or you think you didn’t answer well. Take a moment and see if you can create an anti-bias response to their question. Remember it needs to include all 3 elements.

One other footnote about how to talk about differences comes from disability studies.  Their important advice: use people-first language. What does that mean? When you are describing someone, focus on the person before the label. Say “a man is Jewish” rather than “a Jewish man”. “The girl who is blind” rather than saying “the blind girl”. It’s an easy and important way to be respectful. Focus on the person first!

Knowing how to talk about differences will help prepare your children to understand a world that is increasingly diverse. When you include the anti-bias approach in your conversations, you send healthy messages about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help them develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

4. When Should You Talk About Differences?

Every chance you get! If you need help tackling an especially difficult issue, my best advice is to head to the library. I am a firm believer that no one is too old for children’s books. You can find a children’s book about all sorts of diversity topics, including adoption, growing up with 2 moms, having a parent in jail, getting around in a wheelchair, and talking about different skin colors.

There is even research that suggests that children’s books about cultural diversity facilitate a personal connection between the reader and the story, which leads to more empathetic behavior.

So find books that help you feel comfortable. Read them over a few times and when you’re ready, share them with your kids or grandkids. Be ready for a discussion and incorporate the anti-bias approach, but also realize there might not be a discussion. The truth is that kids accept differences a lot easier than adults to. Sometimes when I tackle a topic I think may be difficult, my kids totally surprise me with their understanding, sensitivity, and empathy.

I also want to give you permission to stall for time. If you are caught off guard and don’t know what to say, that’s okay. But if your child says something that makes you or someone else feel uncomfortable, you need to address it. You can decide the best time to do so but letting insensitive or hurtful comments “slide” teaches your child the wrong message. No matter what, we want our children and grandchildren to see that it is okay to ask questions, that it’s normal to talk about differences, and it’s important to be respectful.

5. Who Should Talk About Differences?

All of us need to talk about differences. As I stand here today, I am aware that my perspective has to do with my life journey and experiences. I am just one person and I know others in this room have different perspectives to share.

It’s also important to remember that we need to be responsible for our own learning. If you have questions about a cultural group or a difference, educate yourself. Do not expect someone to do the work for you. Use the resources around you to enlighten yourself and find opportunities to learn.

Finally, I want to mention the resources we have right here in this community. We have so many advocates, allies, and activists in our congregation. While I have kept my remarks very general, there are more specific tips and pointers that can be helpful when talking about specific cultural groups. Remember the people who are on the front lines and be sure to ask them for their insights. It would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of the amazing people in this room who devote their time and energy advocating for LGBTQ individuals and families, immigrants, impoverished neighborhoods, people experiencing homelessness, public school students, fair wages, equal access, and many, many other social justice issues.

In Summary

If you believe that we our country is unjust and unequal, then you cannot be silent. These are trying times, my friends, and many of the cultural differences we have discussed today are seen as threats by our current President and his administration. More than ever, we need to speak up. We can no longer remain quiet. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Our faith compels us to fight injustice. Talking about our differences is an important first step on the journey towards acceptance and equality. Realize that your journey will include missteps. If you get stuck, ask for help. If you make a mistake, apologize. Embrace any discomfort you experience, for it is a sure sign of growth.

I love the title of Todd Parr’s book because it’s a wonderful mantra, “it’s okay to be different.” This phrase reminds all of us, and kids especially, that the differences they see around them are normal, safe, and fun.

But the mantra, “It’s okay to be different” also implies that every kid and adult should celebrate their own differences. We should be proud of the things that make us unique and special.

Last year, the movie Wonder came out and was based on the popular children’s book by the same name (written by R.J. Palacio). One of my favorite quotes from the book is between Auggie, a young boy, and his older sister, Via. Auggie has facial abnormalities and often tries to hide his face from other people. His sister Via tells him, “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.”

We all need the reminder that our differences are what make us special, unique, and make us stand out from the crowd. Embrace those differences and celebrate them, whether they are yours or someone else’s.

2 Comments

  1. Larry and Joyce February 12, 2018 at 7:46 am - Reply

    My wife and I visited The First Unitarian Church, last Sunday, and had the privilege of hearing Laura speak on “It’s OK to Be Different.” Her talk was so very informative with excellent suggestions regarding tolerance in many aspects of life.

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    • Laura Stanton February 19, 2018 at 11:16 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Larry and Joyce, for coming to hear me and for your kind words. I appreciate it!

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