Lessons on racial prejudice from Human Rights Commission ask too much of preschoolers
Herald-Sun, 14 November 2016
PRESCHOOL children should not be pressured to become cultural warriors on the lookout for racial prejudice in the sandpit or home corner. As I see it, kindergarten kids don’t see difference in the same way as older children or adults. In their eyes there is no value or judgment that comes from having lighter hair or darker skin. So why should we ram it down their throats?
They should be too busy singing songs or playing dress-ups to spend time focusing on racial difference. But that is exactly what a new program from the Australian Human Rights Commission does.
The Building Belonging national toolkit, designed for preschools, childcare centres and primary schools, helps educators “tackle racial prejudice in early childhood settings”. Materials include an e-book called All My Friends and Me, which contains characters such as Pax, Ling, Kojo, Merindah and Parimah. It includes lines such as: “Eyes brown like chocolate, Eyes blue like the sky, But we both like to tuck into yummy stir-fry”.
Other activities include using play dough and laminated mats to explore skin and hair colour difference, a song about skin colours and providing items from other cultures such as chopsticks in home corner. Teachers are also encouraged to use everyday items such as tomatoes and rainbows to prompt discussion of racial and cultural issues.
Educators are also given answers to possible questions posed by children, which include: “Why are there black people?”, “I don’t want to play with the new boy because he is smelly and his skin looks dirty” and “Why did Ned call me an Abo?”
I would argue there’s a problem when children too young to understand racial issues are taught to actively identify and focus on the differences between them and their friends. They should be left alone to just get on with being kids.
It seems ridiculous that the materials for the program talk of the need to ensure any teaching avoids “cultural tokenism” which “oversimplifies cultural differences”. Surely this sort of white-skin-and-black-skin, chopstick and stir-fry approach to racial difference does just that. It reduces kids to little more than their individual differences: their skin colour, hair type and what they eat for dinner.
Children don’t need to be spending their preschool time pondering issues such as: “What would happen if you woke up with a different skin colour? Would it change you?” And: “What do you think about your own skin and hair colour? What makes it beautiful and special?”
I have three kids who have been through preschool and two kids in primary school right now and can’t see there’s a crippling cultural crisis affecting children this age.
I can appreciate the Human Rights Commission’s aim on this one, but I think they miss the mark. By the time kids turn seven or eight, they might be ready for a more considered approach. Unlike some other commentators, I don’t have a problem with most of the material in the Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships programs, primarily because they’re designed for older children.
But three or four is too young to be dealing with such issues.
The commission did some research with early childhood educators and found children were saying things like: “I don’t play with black kids cos my dad told me so” and “I don’t want my colour skin because no one likes it and it’s yucky”.
According to the National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell, educators said they “commonly encountered prejudicial attitudes or behaviours from parents and other educators, as well as from children”.
That may be the case, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the role of preschool teachers to address such issues. Surely it’s the prerogative of parents, not educators. And I can’t see that singing a song about the “Colours of Australia” or drawing a rainbow in only one colour is going to get anyone anywhere.
A better approach, surely, is to address such issues as they arise.
The commission’s research notes educators say three-quarters of children had asked a question about their own or another child’s racial or ethnic background.
They note that, if left unchecked, early negative attitudes can turn into prejudice.
I am sure that is the case, and I’m not suggesting racism or negativity should be ignored. But we must be wary of setting them up to identify difference before they fully comprehend it.
For example, parents are told to encourage their child to “explore friendships with children from different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds”. Why not let kids be friends with whomever they want?
Ms Mitchell says children “are never too young to start learning about their rights and responsibilities”. Well, I think three is too young. Let our young kids relax, play and enjoy what they have in common rather than being continually challenged to search for what divides them.