The brain operates happily when surrounded by sameness. As soon as something comes into our awareness that is a little different, it can throw a bit of a wobbly. The amygdala in our brains can fear the unknown and distrust this new concept that we are faced with. The only way the brain feels like it can cope with such uneasy feelings is to call on the neurons in the mesolimbic system to release that pleasure giving dopamine transmitter that happens when we return to the comfort of our ‘Sameness Tribe’. Basically, the brain would rather stick with what it knows than be scared by difference. Luckily as we have evolved, our understanding and acceptance in the world has increased due to better education and general knowledge about diversity.
Embracing difference has been a hot topic for some time, so what can we do help sustain and deepen this? Teaching children about diversity is essential in today’s society, it is estimated that 95% of the World population will experience physical and/or mental health conditions at some time in their lives so it is inevitable that children will be exposed to some form of ‘difference’ in life. Childhood is the best time to learn acceptance and non-judgmental attitudes due to the welcoming neuroplasticity of the brain and can control how they perceive the world. Here are a few ways and reasons why you should help your child embrace difference in others.
Highlight difference and then normalize it – When a child sees a new object, it is natural that they will always want to explore that object and question. It is no difference when they experience an individual that they meet that does not fit into their ‘Sameness Tribe’. They are not making loud comments or asking cringe worthy questions to embarrass the other person, they are just genuinely interested. Don’t be afraid to explain to them why an individual may look or act differently. Honesty is key. I often hear children telling their parents that dogs are not allowed in shops, so they ask why I have my Guide Dog with me. That is such a valid point as they are still learning about the world around them and need to know the answers. Highlighting the role of Guide Dogs there and then allows them to connect new information to real life situations.
Encouraging them to step out of their own comfort zone – Life will always be full of surprises no matter how hard you try to control otherwise. Remaining in your own comfort zone may keep your amygdala happy but life can become riddled with uneasy feelings if this comfort zone gets taken away form you suddenly. Explaining to children how other people cope successfully with adverse situations is essential to the developing mind. Positive role models of people living with diversity will allow a child to develop coping strategies, acceptance, non-judgemental attitudes, resilience and adaptability. These qualities are essential for a healthy outlook on life.
Prepare them for their own differences – The best gift a child can ever have is to feel comfortable in their own skin. Mental health and wellbeing of an individual can be adversely affected if they do not feel accepted by the outside world. By modelling acceptance of difference in others, children learn to identify their own uniqueness which can prevent internal conflict if they ever feel different in some way. Such an acceptance will allow them to develop a positive mental attitude in becoming an individual regardless of sameness or differences in themselves and others.
Help increase Theory of Mind – To effectively function in the world we need to not only know about ourselves but also about others. The intents, desires, beliefs and thoughts of others minds as well as our own, can help us connect empathetically and create meaningful relationships with others. It is important that children learn from a young age that they are equal to others and are never more or less important than the next person. Helping a child understand that an individual may appear to be different but their core values, needs and wishes in life are equal to their own, allows empathy to develop.
Support unconditional love and compassion – Children are innately accepting and loving towards others. Changes to this innate way of being can come from outside societal influences and not from within so it is key to keep this innate loving way of being alive. Children who love unconditionally, see the world in a more positive light and don’t want to ‘fix’ another’s imperfections. Having compassion for others also allows their own self love to grow at the same time. By encouraging these two qualities in a child life, they will become that best friend, that everyone wishes they had.
Not only do we teach our children, but they can also become our greatest teachers in life. Having such compassionate teachers in this world, would make the world a far nicer place for all to live in regardless of if they belong to their ‘Sameness Tribe’ or not.