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I’m often asked, “When is it too young to expose my child to differences?” My answer: You already have. 

Your children (mine, too) have noticed differences at a very young age. They likely noticed difference because we taught them — we showed them picture books and pointed out the cat and the dog. We showed them board books with different colors and shapes, and we clapped when they told us what made those two items different. We giggled when we asked them to point to our nose. We raised the pitch of our voices when our toddlers excitedly pointed to their ears when we said, “Show Mommy where your ears are!” They knew that our noses were different from our ears; that our cats were different from our dogs; and that our squares were different from our circles. 

Knowing differences has been essential to our children’s functioning. 

So, why are we surprised when, as school children, we are having conversations about differences? Why are we uncomfortable when our children come home talking about differences between the Jim Crow south and now? Or, the experiences from the Civil Rights Movement and now? Or differences between skin colors or sexual orientation or genders? 

We are surprised because, for many of us, we haven’t been comfortable talking about it ourselves. We have become uncomfortable with the idea of people noticing differences. 

Sure, it’s easy to tell my child the differences between cats and dogs or spoons and forks or hot and cold because I’ve been talking about those things my whole life — at least since I was their age! 

But, other differences? Differences in race, skin color, religion, ability, class, gender? Those are harder because, frankly, I’ve had a harder time talking about them myself. 

The other day, one of my children was asking me about Hanukkah. As a practicing Catholic, I have never celebrated Hanukkah. I have had friends who celebrate; students who celebrate; colleagues and neighbors who celebrate. But, I, myself, have never celebrated Hanukkah. Even growing up, I lived in a town that was predominantly Catholic, and in my graduating class at my public high school, there were still less than a dozen students who identified as Jewish. Learning about Hanukkah and other traditions in the Jewish faith was not part of my education. 

I was uncomfortable with his question about differences. 

I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if I had all the facts right. 

I was uncomfortable because, as a Catholic, I didn’t want any of my own words to sound biased or that I preferred my own religion. 

I was uncomfortable because I was sharing information about a group and faith tradition that was different from my own.  

But, I knew it was my responsibility as a parent to find out more. It was my responsibility to educate myself. It was my responsibility to be comfortable talking about some of the basic foundations of Hanukkah. And, because my child is Catholic like me, it was important to give him some context to our own faith tradition and its relationship to Hanukkah.

I knew, after that talk, my child would have questions. And, he did. His questions about Hanukkah led him to questions about people who identify as Jewish. He asked questions about people who are Jewish and how they celebrated. He asked about differences between people who practice Judaism and Catholicism. He asked if we would ever be Jewish or if his friend would ever be Catholic. And, he asked “What if one parent is Jewish and the other parent is Catholic?”

He asked all the questions that I would expect a young child to ask — guided by curiosity. 

He didn’t walk away from our conversation with a judgement value on his own faith practice or that of others. He simply asked questions, and he got simple answers that were appropriate for his age. He knows that there is beauty and strength in his own faith practice and that religions different from our own are also beautiful and strong. 

While he may not have had a proper course in Religious Studies 101, I hope that he walked away knowing it was okay for him to ask questions. I hope he walked away knowing that he could come to me if he had more questions. He certainly learned that I didn’t have all the answers, but that I would go find out the answers to his questions. 

Every Sunday, as we sit in our Church, surrounded by other Catholics, my son has knows that there is importance in gathering together for that 60 minutes in our faith practice. He hasn’t memorized all of the prayers, and he still asks to get a drink from the water fountain when the priest starts his homily. He knows that, in our faith tradition, we believe that gathering on a Sunday helps to amplify God’s word. Gathering together with people of our same religion doesn’t mean that we devalue other faith traditions. Gathering together with people from our same religion doesn’t mean that we don’t learn about others. Gathering with people from our same religion for 60 minutes on a Sunday doesn’t mean that we feel better than others or more important than others. Gathering together is simply that — gathering together. We gather together in our religious tradition so that we can hear the Word of God — a God we believe in that others do not — and share in this similarity. 

Then, after Church, we exit the front doors and enter into a diverse, vibrant and exciting world filled with people from all different faith and religious beliefs as well as those who do not have or follow a particular faith or religion.

Being in our small Sunday church allows us to learn more about ourselves so that we can be our best selves with others. 

As we enter into a season where we may be spending more time with family, and maybe even with friends and family from different backgrounds of all types, it’s important to begin thinking about how comfortable we are talking about differences. Our conversations about differences should be about learning, about seeing and about talking. 

Having differences is not about being better or worse than someone else. 

Having differences is about acknowledging, appreciating and learning about ourselves and others.

Peace and Park, 

Dr. T