Here are 11 ideas for teaching kids to be inclusive. Getting left out of the cool kids group at school, having no one to sit with at lunch, not getting invited to social functions, and being picked last for the team are all examples of social exclusion. And it hurts. Social exclusion can impact everything from emotional well-being to academic achievements.
But what if your child is the one doing the excluding? How do you get them to be inclusive and still allow them to have preferences about who to hang out with?
Realize That Exclusion Is a Form of Bullying
When kids exclude others, this is a form of bullying known as relational aggression or social bullying. This term refers to the use of social networks, either in the real world or online, to be hurtful to someone. Exclusion is one of the tactics relational bullies use.
Author Scott Peck describes how unhealthy groups can create a sense of purpose and value for themselves by choosing an individual to be a common enemy in his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace.What he is referring to is when a group of mean girls or bullies builds their identity by keeping an individual out and attacking this person’s reputation and value. They also develop a sense of connectedness despite the fact that they are being mean.
Sometimes, the group will make fun of the person, engage in name-calling and leave the person off of invitation lists. They also may take bullying online and engage in cyberbullying, shaming, and subtweeting. At other times, the group may act like the person does not exist. Usually, one person in the group leads the shaming and ostracizing and pressures others to bully as well. Consequently, the members of the group either participate or say nothing when the mean behavior occurs.
To make matters worse, adults rarely take relational aggression between children and teens seriously. They make suggestions like, “Just ignore them and play with someone else.” But minimizing the pain of exclusion is never a good idea. Just remember that all kids, regardless of age, benefit from having the adults in their lives listen to and validate their feelings.
Not only do kids internalize the message from their peers that they are “losers,” but they also may act in self-destructive ways. In fact, some kids become depressed or even contemplate suicide. Meanwhile, others become bitter and look for ways to get revenge. Without support, a child may start to believe that everyone important in the world thinks she has no value or worth.
Of course, one of the best ways to help combat exclusion is to teach kids from an early age how to be inclusive. Here are some ways you can do that.
Teach Kids How to Be Inclusive
Check your own diversity deficits. Remember, kids watch and listen to everything you do. Examine your neighborhood, your community, your friendships and your interactions with others. Then be honest with yourself. How often does your family interact with people who are not like you? For instance, do you have friends that are different races and religions? Are you accepting of people? Or do you make judgments and maintain stereotypes? If you want your kids to be inclusive, you need to be that way too.
Support individuality. Encourage your children to value not only themselves as unique and worthwhile people but others as well. Remind them that a person’s appearance, personality, quirks, beliefs, and interests bring something special to the world that nobody else can duplicate. If your children recognize that everyone has something to offer, they will be less likely to socially reject others.
Reject in-crowd ideas. Be sure your child realizes that the “in-crowd” does not always translate to the “best crowd.” Instead, focus their attention on values including kindness, respect, and empathy. And teach them what constitutes a healthy friendship. Also, resist the urge to invest in all the latest electronics, gadgets, clothes, shoes and cars. These items will not buy acceptance for your child. If you take your child’s focus off of material items as a means to acceptance, then they will be less likely to judge others on their material items as well.
Teach your child to reach out to others. Urge them to make other kids in her class feel valued. Encourage them to call the new kid in class or get to know the classmate who often sits alone at lunch. One way to make sure this is happening is to challenge your child to find out one good thing about a child they regularly say is annoying. Challenging them to do this will teach them that there is good in everyone and that everyone has something to offer the world.
Get your child to look to the future. Sometimes the values, abilities, and strengths that are admired in middle school are not the same attributes that are admired later in college. For instance, the highly intelligent boy who is awkward in middle school may go on to be a brilliant doctor someday. The goal is that your child sees that even kids who are not popular are worth investing time in.
Ask professionals. Teachers, counselors, and principals are usually able to identify a child whose friendship your child can cultivate, especially if your child seems to attract toxic friends or frenemies. Be sure to check in with the teachers and administrators at your child’s school for ideas on other friendships or groups. Cliques can be extremely unhealthy and you should encourage your child to avoid becoming a part of a clique.
Help your child cast a wide net. Research has shown that kids who have a diverse set of friendships, such as friends from school, church, sports, and so on, will not only be more accepting of others, but they also are less likely to be bullied. The reason is simple. They have learned to get along with a diverse group of people.
As a result, you should encourage your child to cast a wide net and seek out friendships in their neighborhood, at school, on a team, through a club, and at church. Remember, you play an important role in making sure your child finds lots of meaningful friendships. Encourage them to develop healthy friendships with many different peers and in all types of friendship groups. Kids with a diverse network of supportive friends have a greater chance of success in a very diverse world.
Empower your child. While it is important that your child attempt to include everyone, you also need to let them know that they are allowed to feel safe and valued in a friendship. Your child does not have to accept being physically or emotionally attacked by a child in the interest of being inclusive. What’s more, if the relationship has proven to be hurtful and toxic, it is absolutely acceptable for your child to establish boundaries with the person.
It is even acceptable to establish boundaries with kids that have special needs. Just because a child has a disability does not give him the right to hurt your child physically or emotionally. Nor should your child feel like she always has to do what the other child wants if it is not a mutual choice.
Create distance with respect. Sometimes kids are just mean and it is not healthy for your child to maintain the friendship. But that does not give your child the right to reciprocate. Instead, encourage your child to avoid using nasty words, fake apologies or justifying cruel jokes by adding “just kidding” to the end of the sentence.
They should opt for being respectful while creating a distance from the friend. And if appropriate, have them communicate why they are distancing herself. In some cases, honest communication can motivate a young person to change.
Teach your child to be an advocate, not a witness. Peer pressure is a powerful thing. But so is standing up for other kids. Research shows that when one person takes a stand against bullying, it stops.3 When your child sees another child being excluded, encourage them to take a stand.
They can do this in several ways. They can tell others that excluding someone is not nice. Or, they can take steps to befriend the excluded student. They can offer to sit with the student at lunch, walk with them in the halls and talk to them between classes.
Keep track of what is happening online. If your child is engaging with kids online who are ostracizing others, be sure you say something about it. Even if your child never does anything to ostracize others, remind them that liking or sharing a mean post is just as hurtful as the original post.
Ideally, your child should stop following the mean kids altogether. But many kids have a fear of missing out and this can be difficult for them. So be patient. Cutting these ties may take some time and an extra dose of courage, especially if they fear retaliation. In the meantime, avoid insisting that your child stop using technology or social media altogether. Instead, teach them how to disengage from unhealthy online friendships. These lessons will serve her far better later in life than having no experience with social media at all.