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Embracing Diversity and Practicing Empathy in our Communities

Embracing Diversity and Practicing Empathy in our Communities
Posted on October 30, 2020 by CHS

Fred Rogers once said, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has, or ever will have, something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” Embracing diversity involves practicing empathy on a daily basis, finding those things within both ourselves and others that make us unique, discovering ways to respect and celebrate that uniqueness, and allowing it to enhance the way we view the world. Practicing empathy and embracing diversity brings us all closer together and strengthens our communities.

Exploring Diversity

The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education Position Statement defines diversity as the “variation among individuals, as well as within and across groups of individuals, in terms of their backgrounds and lived experiences. These experiences are related to social identities, including race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, social and economic status, religion, ability status, and country of origin.” In order to understand the families in your community, we need to consider all of the elements and characteristics that influence how families function.

Reflecting on our own families can help us understand the characteristics that influence how our family is structured, how it functions, and how it shapes our concept of what it means to be a family. The California Department of Education’s (CDE) book Family Partnerships and Culture explores the characteristics of families in detail. Take a look at the ten characteristics adapted from the book below, and use the questions to reflect on how these elements may, or may not, influence your own family.

  • Family Structure: Who are the members of your family? What are their duties and roles? Who has authority and makes decisions? How do things get done?
  • Socialization and Raising Children: How do you think children should be raised and cared for? How do you think children should learn social skills and manners? How do children develop character?
  • Gender Roles: Consider how traditional gender roles may or may not impact your family. Does your family discuss traditional societal gender roles and gender fluidity, and the acceptance of gender fluidity within the family?
  • Identity: How do you believe identity or self-concept develops? How does gender identity, skin color, beliefs, attitudes about yourself and groups that you associate with. including your family history or country of origin, affect your identity and the identity of your family members?
  • Spirituality: Do you believe there is a non-material world beyond life? How do these beliefs influence your family?
  • Emotional Expression: How do you and the members of your family express emotions? Are there emotions that are not openly expressed?
  • Social and Economic Status: How do you feel your family fits into the social and economic status of society? This can include wealth, education, or occupational status.
  • Celebrations: Does your family celebrate events of spiritual, social, political, or economic significance? If so, how? Consider specific foods, artistic expression, music, or rituals you use.
  • Friendship: How do friendships impact your family structure?
  • Civic Engagement: Do you participate in volunteer work that improves the lives of others, or benefits your community?

Now that you have reflected on your own family structure, you can use these questions to consider the different viewpoints your friends, neighbors, and other members of your community may hold about their own families. Taking the time to consider the perspective of others and expand your knowledge builds empathy and offers insight into the culture, values, and skills families want to share with their children. To embrace diversity it is necessary to practice self-reflection on an ongoing basis and develop the following three skills:

  • Build your knowledge of perspectives and worldviews that are different from your own. This includes your ideas of what is right and wrong.
  • Develop an attitude of acceptance, appreciation, empathy, and respect for those different worldviews. This also means accepting and valuing yourself.
  • Practice behavior that demonstrates a growing cultural understanding of acceptance, which will result in positive interactions with diverse groups. Develop your awareness of your own feelings about diversity as well as your feelings about the diversity of others.

Remember that this is a learning process, and that everyone around you is learning too. Practice seeing the perspectives of others and you will find that your knowledge, enjoyment, and appreciation for both yourself and others will improve. When you engage in conversations with other people in your community, you can use these three techniques to help make it a more positive experience for everyone involved:

  • Listen to the ideas of other people with the purpose of understanding them, not as a means of changing them.
  • Create a partnership by treating others as equals regardless of differences.
  • Avoid judging or labeling other people. Focus on just hearing what they have to say.

Practicing Empathy

Empathy is the ability to intuitively understand another person’s emotions and perspective. Children develop empathy throughout their preschool years, and continue to expand their ideas and understanding of empathy during their elementary school years. Empathy allows us to form strong relationships, resolve conflicts peacefully, value the uniqueness of others, practice tolerance, and understand other points of view. Children learn empathy by exploring similarities and differences, developing relationships, and participating in caretaking or nurturing routines.

Parents and caregivers can support children in developing empathy by building a strong relationship with them. When children have strong relationships with trusted adults, they feel comfortable seeking out information and advice from them. Answer children’s questions honestly and model the conversation skills mentioned above. Adults can also model perspective-taking and guide children through the process of considering someone else’s feelings, ideas, and opinions.

Observe children during play and when you see a conflict escalating, step in and say, “Let’s pause and take turns listening to each other.” Then encourage each child to listen to the other, and ask them for ideas of possible solutions to their problem. You can also do this when you are reading stories to children. If there is a point of conflict in the story say, “Let’s pause and think about what’s happening. How do you think this person feels? What would you do?” This process allows children an opportunity to consider viewpoints or ideas that are different from their own.

Activities to Build Empathy and Explore Diversity with Children

  • Help your children learn the names of emotions by identifying them when they happen, and showing children how to manage them in healthy ways. You can also read books about emotions with young children like When I Am/Cuando Estoy by Gladys Rosa-Mendoza. Click here for a list of books.
  • Teach children how to do deep breathing exercises when they feel strong emotions so that they can learn to calm themselves down enough to resolve conflicts and see another person’s perspective. You can find simple breathing exercises here.
  • Make dolls available to all children. Choose dolls that have similar and different physical characteristics of your child or the children in your care. Offer items that allow children to practice caretaking during play such as a blanket, bottle, or doll clothing.
  • Read books that explore different types of families such as The Great Big Book of Familiesby Mary Hoffman. Choose books that include diverse family structures like adoptive families, step-families, single-parent families, two-mom and two-dad families, and families with a mom and a dad.
  • Art projects allow children to develop their self-identity and explore the similarities and differences between themselves and others. Invite your child to look in a mirror and draw a self-portrait. Children can then draw portraits of friends and family members from memory, or by looking at photographs. Talk about the physical characteristics in the portraits; discuss what is alike and different.
  • Storytelling is a way to share your family history with children of all ages, including young adults. Tell stories about your family memories and try to link those stories to special objects. For example, you may have a family heirloom like your grandmother’s china, or a special gift you received from someone you love like a necklace, book, watch, or handmade item. You can use that object as the focus of your story. Start by saying, “Have you ever wondered why I have this? Let me tell you the story.” Talk about the person, show children photos if you have them, and tell the story of why that object has meaning for you.
  • Share your story with your family, friends, your child’s classroom, or the community. You can develop a website or use social media to create a place where people can share their stories about their heritage and families. This offers people a chance to self-reflect on their own identity and learn about other families and cultures.

Explore the links below for a wide range of activity ideas, conversation starters, information, and resources for exploring diversity with children.


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