10 Children's Books That Shape A StrOng Ethnic Identity in ChildRen
Have you ever worried your child grows up insecure feeling less adequate, less worth than others based on her appearance, his skills, her skin tone or her ethnic background? Have you ever wondered if he may feel like he is not fitting in his or her homogenous surroundings?
Maybe you have heard your child say:
"I wish I wasn't..." or
"I wish I was..."
Maybe YOU have said it. Maybe you openly broke down in tears with this statement one day or you quietly mumbled it to yourself as you looked into the bathroom mirror as a teenager.
I believe no matter if everyone in your community looks like you or no one looks like you, every single person in this world has struggled, is struggling or will be struggling with identity problems at some point in his or her life. Especially young people who are beginning their formation of self image are in danger of taking on a negative or a false identity of who they truly are.
So how do you foster a strong, healthy cultural identity in your child within which they learn to honor their own as well as other cultures without feeling they are inferior or superior to the own?
Here are 5 ways I found very helpful in raising children that are of an ethnic minority or majority:
1.) First be aware of the fact that a person can only develop a healthy self image when he or she absolutely embraces and loves their own cultural and personal identity AND has learnt to absolutely value and love the diversity of other people’s unique ethnic identities. That means just feeling “I’m (or we are) so wonderfully made because I am/we are .... “ will not foster a healthy emotional life. It’s not enough to emphasize your child’s personal giftings. Only by embracing others as much as self can we encourage well balanced kids (and adults) that are healthy in mind, body, soul and spirit.
Practically, there are many books that claim to be for children of color, but unfortunately I have found some to do more harm than good. For example, a book that says "I love myself even when my hair is a mess" and shows a girl with curly hair is not something I would keep (though I bought it...) in my library. It signals to the child "when your hair is not combed straight it is a mess". Why not sending a message that your hair in whatever curl or straight pattern it falls is beautiful? So, one book I "like" is "I love my hair" (: It celebrates the African heritage in a little girls hair and the different styles she can wear her hair. I also like the bilingual book "hairs/pelitos" that describes the beautiful differing hair types within one Latino family. Both books contributed to what I would describe a healthy love for their hair in my little girls. We read the book along with expressing beauty of my daughters different hair types on a constant basis and aiming to send the message that their hair is not an inconvenience (even during those looong washing, conditioning and combing hours:) but a blessing and special gift. I went ahead and read and ordered a multitude of hair books for kids when I sensed one of my daughters heard negative messages about curly hair and I have to honestly say these two were two of few that I can hands down and whole heartedly recommend. Oh and I absolutely love the part of "Hairs" where the little girl cuddles and smells the fragrance of her moms curls that remind her of food (: It's a book that's good to have in your shelf for kids to pull out and read on their own once in a while to reinforce the message.
What are some other tools that can adjust and fix a broken or slightly distorted cultural identity?
2. Be intentional about who you allow to speak into your child’s life and mind. Surround yourself and your child with people who naturally speak positivity, life and esteem your child’s appearance, unique physical features, attitudes and giftings. To be honest there are just those gems of people who anytikenthey encounter your child are impressed by his or her hair, smile, happiness, energy. And then there is distant cousin Joe Bill who at every family gathering makes fun of yor little ones unique curl pattern, harshly critizes her loud laugh and raises his brow at the deep tan she received over the summer. Those are the ones you want to limit or keep away. Now can you totally shun Joe Bill? No, but you can influence that people with such attitude are not placed as primary care takers and therefore a significant part of your child’s weekly experience. Also, don’t shun difficult conversations. Lay out the boundaries of what people can speak over and into your child’s life. Obviously those talks should be seasoned with generous amounts of love and affirmation for all the good those we’ll meaning people add to your child’s life. At the same time be clear about expectations. See it that way, you are also doing those people a favor by pointing out blind spots that probably bring them difficulties in other relationships as well. And after you laid down your boundaries it’s up to them to stay in your child’s life within those lines or leave. You be ok with either one knowing you are the main guardian of your little ones heart and mind in those early years that shape their self image and cultural identity.
2. Surround your child with strong beautiful self confident people of the same cultural idenity as they have in daily life. Begin at your child’s ethnic idenity. If your child is multiethnic make sure he or she is not only surrounded by one group of ethnicity but by both and those are represented by equally empowering people. Be intentional to have regular, weekly, daily interactions with people that represent different ethnicities. How do we do that? Choose your child’s school not just based on test scores and academics but also on percentage of ethnic diversity. Only someone who has been the only... (fill in the dots: African American, Asian, Latino, or White) student in a .... school can attest to how it negatively affects their self image and cultural identity. Living in a homogeneous culture and always being “different” is not healthy. This applies to school, church, play groups, study groups, sports, extra curricula activities etc. There needs to be a healthy balance and intentionality to surround your child with children of various ethnicities including their own. This will model that 1. It’s ok to be different and 2. That we all bring something unique to the table. 3. That we value their and others diversity. Again you Do Not do your child a favor if you isolate their cultural identity in the name of academics, prestige or social status.
Yes, take your child to special events that highlight their and different cultures but also make it a part of their regular life. For example as my girls started out Ballet I was almost obsessed with finding an instructor of color for them. Yes they had seen Misty Copeland and I wanted them to keep having a role model they could aspire too. We ended up finding an amazing instructor who didn’t just only stand out athletically but was a great role model in self esteem, love and character. Last word in that: my tip, surround your child with a VARIETY of teachers from different ethnic backgrounds but make sure some of them include your child’s primary ethnicity(ies). This will ensure that their influencers not only value your child’s culture but other culture and model this mindset to your child.
3. Talk to your child about his or her beautiful cultural heritage and unique giftings frequently. Constantly point out the beauty and strength of their culture. Yes in the end it’s YOUR outstanding privilege to speak truth into your little ones life. They believe your voice more than anyone else’s, includ my TV and commercials.
If you ignore your child’s ethnicity, they will ignore it too. And that is unhealthy because society does not ignore it. We all know that the statement “I’m color blind” is wrong in so many different ways. So you address it. Your word is powerful. If you label (verbally or non verbally) your child’s hair as difficult or exotic that’s what she will see her hair as. If you label his curls as beautifully and wonderfully made and special, if you say things like “not everyone can grow such stunning little curls as yours and they need special care” as you layer in the conditioners that’s how they will feel about their hair and themselves. Valuable lesson for self care here for us as care takers not just of our kids but ourselves and others. In the end what we model is what they will imitate. If we look in the mirror mumbling “omg I look so fat”, guess what? So let’s keep it up beat, positive even if we have to fake it. “Omg! I love my/your hair today!!!!”
4. Give them a sense of historical idenity. Children love and need to hear where they came from! And I’m not talking about “where do babies come from”. No, where did my ethnically history begin? Teach them history starting in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe or whatever their historical ethnic context is. Their story most likely didn’t begin at the place they were born. They are telling into a line of traditions and rich heritage that needs to be orally communicated, by you! In this context let me step on my soap bad for a second and tell you why I personally don’t use the politically correct term “Blacks” for people of African descent. Short answer: because it erases any and all historical context and places a people group according to skin tone versus valuing their rich cultural heritage. Especially African American children who involuntarily were brought to America need to know that their story just began in America, with slavery, with being slaves. You are not just “black American” you have an idenity that started before captivity. Your ethnic idenity is not just a skin hue within a foreign land, is richer in heritage than emancipation from slavery and the achievements of the civil rights movement. Far too long it’s been taught and bought in to that history started here. I believe as educators or children of different ethnicities (including children of European descent) we have to start teaching history from where it really began, for all pilgrims and imigrants. Only that will nurture a healthy and holistic cultural idenity. That’s one of the reasons I created the unit study on immigrants (“Pilgrims now and then”) for my students which includes people’s rich heritage in their country of origin be it Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America. (See blog post on that)
5. One last but not least powerful tool to build a positive self image and cultural idenity or repair a broken one are books!!! Just as much as badly written (even well meaning) books can distort a child's self image, well written books can ever so gentle heal and bring the message of internal worth and healthy cultural idenity across. I don't know how many times I had to swallow hard after reading a line in a children's book that dealt with cultural idenity. Some authors are just gifted in writing well on this topic.
So what are some multicultural children's books that will instantly speak truth and beauty into your and your child's life? What are books that seem to cover multicultural topics yet do more harm than good in your child's self esteem? Here are things to look out for in books: (and I’ll have book suggestion at the end of the post)
1. Choose books that use pictures that are friendly and inviting, just beautiful to look at. Pictures that portray your child's ethnic background and other ethnicities should be honoring to that culture and not depict them as mean or ignorant. Bottom line, just like with dolls, no matter how artistically inclined if the images of people do not signal beauty of a particular ethnicity it will not help boost your child's self esteem. The books you read should be pleasant for your child AND you to look at because otherwise... you won't read them. (:
2. Carefully choose books that use terms that are written in an honoring tone and not deragatory of certain ethnic features and so not use sterotypical or negative verbage. For example. "I like my hair even when it looks nappy and crazy" is not a positive reinforcement of finding beauty in curly hair. Just as you do not want to use terms such as good hair and bad hair you want to avoid books that label certain hairstyles as messy or "crazy". This should be a given, I know, but as you browse books there are those out there that seemingly have a message of self love yet are still labeling certain hair types or skin complexions as superior. So watch out for those subliminal messages!
3. Start by reading books on your child's own cultural idenity and then proceed to read books on children of other ethnic backgrounds.
Let's say your child is adopted, of Asian or African descent and your family is American of European descent. You will want to surround your child early on with images of little book heroes that look like them. As you read books on beautiful character (yes and physical traits) you will read stories of boys and girls that actually reflect what your child sees in the mirror. As you start by putting positive images in front of them it will be easy and natural for your child to identify with the character. For example: you are teaching your African American child about cleaning up her room and being a precious princess: you read books like "Princess Cupcake" (see bellow), a self confident, not perfect but good and beautiful girl that is surrounded by a loving family that values her and trains her to do the same think.
4. Use books to address issues that have come up and that your child is wrestling with. Your child may not have fully processed an event that devalued his or her cultural heritage. Books are wonderful tools to dive into the story of another child, identify and find a solution. For example, your child was ridiculed for her ethnic name. You read a story about a little Korean girl that first felt ashamed for her name, trying to hide her cultural idenity, but later realizes the rich heritage and love that is connected to her name. She does that with help of her loving family and peers that have a different thnoc background but see value in what her name brings to their community or school room ("The name jar" see below).
Another example would be your children having encountered prejudices and racism themselves. They are openly or internally wondering "why do others say I'm different?" A good book to process this is "Mr Lincolns Way" that beautifully yet straight on touches on that topi: a principle lovingly and wisely deals with prejudices of "not being our kind" and compares his students to diverse birds that are all loved and valued the same.
5. Use books (and also songs and dvds) that cement a positive self image and healthy embracing of other cultures and diversity.
Children, like us, internalize messages we hear in songs and see in movies. So, if we daily listened to a song that says "oh oh oh I wish I was a little bit taller, oh how I wish I wash taller, oh oh..." we will subconsciously wish for a different height, right? Well, ok maybe it's a far fetched example.
But fact is that if kids sing along to a uplifting fun and colorful DVD song that goes "we are all unique, we are all alike. Everybody laughs, everybody smiles, everybody sleeps, everybody cries, everybody dreams, we are all unique we are all alike." ("Babysongs" Dvd, ages 0-5, see bellow). That along with the positive images of children of different ethnic backgrounds playing together and going about the up and downs of their days, WILL send a positive message about diversity to your child's brain. Your student will subconsciously realize: Everybody, no matter age, gender or ethnicity has a beautiful story that is worth their time telling and worth my time listening to.
6. Don't be afraid to dive into your child's personal cultural idenity, heritage, history and traditions. Why do we do what we do? Does it matter? Is it a valuable contribution to the community we live in though it's so different? Great books that touch on that are bellow as well.
7. Lastly, address the emotions and conflicts that come with living "between cultures". Being multiethnic and never feeling quite fully at home in one country is totally ok and not unique to your child. Read books like "Grandfathers journey" and discuss how the Japanese grandfather had the same exact feeling but became so much richer by living in both cultures. "My diary form here to there" touches in similar theme and also talks about the feelings that come with leaving a country and embracing a new life. I posted more great books on that topic in my blog post on immigration "Pilgrims Now and Then".
I posted some impactful books and resources from our personal library at the bottom of the post. Feel free to click the links to check them out.
But what is idenity anyways?
It's simply the answer to the question: "Who am I?"
Let me give you the short answer to this question:
You are YOU. A human being. Therefore...
Your views and experiences matter.
Your contributions to this world matter.
Your gifts, talents and smile matter.
Your beautiful, challenging and unique story matters.
In fact your story is an important piece to the puzzle to make this world a better place.
You are you.
And You are loved.
...Just jn case you wondered about those basics of identity.
But discovering who that you is in detail with all its intricate shapes, patterns and unique gifts is often a journey. Since none of us is a single facet, homogenous personality, but multi-layered diverse persona (just like the succulent I saw this morning, see photo) we need to intentionally explore who we truly are.
And in the different seasons of life that search may look different. Yet it's an important part of life to be able to define who you are in order to live life to your fullest potential. Maybe it means digging in attics of your past a bit getting surprised by the treasures (and scared by the skeletons). And maybe it means being fine with letting all that be part of the journey. The journey that we owe to ourselves, our children, grandchildren. The journey of self discovery that we owe to those we lead and ... to this world.
The outstanding African American Scientist George W Carver said: “No individual has any right to come into this world and go out of it without leaving behind him a distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.” We all are called to leave an imprint in this world. In order to do that we all are called to know our specific imprint and figure out who we truly are.
The same is true for young and old people alike. Now before I sound too philosophical let me roll it back in into the solid, down to earth foundation of where we stand right now: In a cyberspace blog on diversity. (:
One driving force behind and defining moment for me to start diversifying my school room actually happened that very moment I realized how important it is to form a healthy identity in my students. In fact I go so far to say that every subject and activity in your student's life, every success and every failure is influenced by what your student thinks about him or herself.
What do I mean by that? Early on in childhood, your image of yourself, positive or negative is formed. Like a hodgepodge hand print. The books you read, places you see, foods you eat and role models you have shape how you see yourself. As successful or unsuccessful. Capable. Accepted. Important. Safe. Protected. Valued. Honored. Beautiful. Unconditionally loved. Irreplaceable. Just to name a few.
Early in in my personal educational journey I don't remember seeing a single role model that looked like me (see blog on diverse toys). In fact most real life heroes looked the same and they were male. So years later when I became an educator, even as a teenage tutor still, I decided, my school rooms need to foster a healthy balance of introducing faces, voices, pictures, stories and books of all kind of different shapes, colors, hues, features and accents.
Throughout the years I've always had the underlining goal of not only teaching my students and children the subjects' content but to make them feel valuable. Capable. Empowered. Connected. Safe and loved. And open to other cultures.
How do I do that apart from using books:
1. First, by making them see the value in their own culture. No matter if my students are of European, African, Asian or Native American descent, or a mix of all of them, they bring something unique to our table! Something beautiful that's worth seeing and hearing. Something that the world is waiting for. I've learnt something new from every single one of my students. And I tell them so.
2. Secondly, I expose my students to new different cultures, habits, looks and even belief systems at some point to expand their world view. I believe it's the duty of every educator and parent to expose those under their leadership to concepts that will enable them to grow beyond what they know, academically AND culturally. Plus, we need to expose and be exposed to ideas and life's that will cause our hearts to grow... because honestly is there anything worse than someone with a huge intellectual head but a tiny, dry heart?
3. And I use Humor! Whenever possible I point out the laughable hilarious aspects of my own culture(s) and those of other cultures and silly interactions that happen. This world, in fact your life can be such a sad and frustrating place sometimes. And we can and must acknowledge the realities, facing them head on, and overcoming them. Sad realities shouldn't keep us teachers from conveying them to our students. I believe we don't do anyone justice by ever shying away from truth.
But is it ok to cover tough realities such as war with young students? Yes, but I believe there is a way to do that, even in the tender elementary age students (but teens and adults are fragile too). A way to speak truth about pain and loss and in midst of that not to lose hope but to feel hopeful. To inspire them to feel beautiful, strong, even empowered to change the world within their sphere of influence.
And you always want to season serious topics and lessons with a good dose of humor and laughter!
I believe If you want to empower someone to change the world you have to show them a mirror of how beautiful they are and teach them that they can do more than they think.
I didn't have that. Honestly as a young girl I was pretty confused when it came to ethnic identify. In fact, I believe there is a battle for your identity and mine was stolen early on.
Who am I? I wondered as a child. "I live in Germany, speak German, my friends are German but also from so many diverse cultures and ... I love both Ghanaian and German food (plus Chinese food, Cuban food, Thai food, Mexican food, Italian food and Japanese food, just to name a few).
Hello?! How confusing is that now? Who am I?
It took me years to recover from identity theft and uncover the reality of my valuable diverse identity. And to embrace it. It took me years to utilize my identity to move into all I was created to be. And quite honestly I'm still unveiling. Now together with my students who see all those multi facet mosaics. For their betterment, I believe.
And that's one of the reason I'm writing this blog. Because I've heard countless stories of people along the way getting detached from their cultural identity. People being unsure of their European, African, Latino or Asian or Native American heritage. People not being sure what they believe and why they believe it.
Or if they knew it not being sure if it really mattered. Doesn't my carrier, education, hobbies overpower my cultural heritage? Does it even matter what hue of skin color and cultural background and life experiences I have? It does! It is YOUR beautiful story. Your journey. And once you discover where you come from, how you were fashioned to express beauty in this world, you can also truly embrace where others come from. You can celebrate how they were uniquely shaped.
And once you embrace where others come from you can truly walk out your journey freely in this world, leaving footprint that matter. And they will be beautiful to others and to you. Because they were YOUR footprints.
Lastly, the more I'm doing this thing called live and living in authentic community the more I realize:
In this world
we are all on a journey.
No one has arrived
and no one has to have it all together and no one knows it all.
That's where humanity and grace and things like forgiveness and grace step in. Into our humanity and frailty. And that's what makes like so beautiful. So diverse.
We are all on a journey together. A journey to discover our own diversity and the diversity of others. We as humans have the unique gift of embracing each other's stories with all their beauty and brokenness. That's life. That's journeying together. That's finding who we truly are. Little by little. (:
Bellow are resources for children that I used to help students embrace their own and others unique appearance, cultural identity and develop a healthy self-image. The books cover celebrating and understanding cultural heritage of people such as being of African, Asian, European and Latin American descent.
I suggest reading not just a book do your own cultural heritage (though you may want to start there), but of various ones.
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I have included excellent multicultural educational dvd for little ones to sing along Happy tones such as "we are all unique, we are all alike" and others. My little ones love that DVD of the sweetest multicultural children playing together. Click the links below to order!
Happy Reading, watching and yep...Self-discovery!
Ps: This blog was inspired by countless beautiful, cheerful and tearful conversations I've had with friends on idenity over the past 30+ years.... please join in! What methods and books have you used to build a positive self image and healthy cultural identity in your child? If you have any suggestions on what you like to see covered on this blog please let me know!
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California based Ghanaian-German educator, writer, bookworm and mama of three. A lover of all things nature, diversity & healthy.
"Education is nothing else than discovery.
And discovery full of diversity is beautiful."
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About the author
My name is Nancy. I'm a teacher, home educator, wife, mother, writer and accidental German-Ghanaian transplant to the U.S., in love with California and all things diversity.