The process of being open minded, having empathy, and being less judgmental of people who are different begins early in life and it’s something we can always get better at throughout adulthood. Awareness can be defined as “knowing that something (such as a situation, condition, or problem) exists; feeling, experiencing, or noticing something [inside or outside of yourself]; or knowing and understanding a lot about what is happening in the world or around you”. Awareness of people’s differences from you, as well as your own unique characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, allows you to be more open minded and less judgmental. By being aware of others and your own strengths and weaknesses, you can build confidence and realize that your differences are okay too! Awareness can also lead to you developing fewer stereotypes and making fewer generalizations about people who are different than yourself. One of the most important results of awareness, however, is developing empathy, which means you listen, put yourself in others' shoes, try to understand their perspective, and share in their feelings. Empathy basically says, “I acknowledge this is your experience and how you feel, and that’s all valid, even if I don’t share that experience or those feelings”.
In a world that seems increasingly more divided by differences in religion, ability, gender, race, and nationality, awareness is an incredibly important aspect of development to teach children. Children learn to be aware of others and to value diversity by being taught these things by their parents and primary caregivers, as well as by being immersed in experiences that expose them to people who may be different than themselves. For example, Hand-in-Hand’s child care participants are exposed (from 6 weeks of age through preschool) to peers of different races, genders, and ability levels as part of our mission to have integrated programs that serve participants of all abilities. By being exposed to these differences early in life, participants will likely have an easier time with being open minded to and having empathy for others’ differences as they grow older.
Parents, guardians, and caregivers can help children develop healthy awareness of themselves and others by identifying children’s strengths and weaknesses in a positive way, encouraging children to get to know a variety of different people, and challenging stereotypes and generalizations children may pick up from others or from observations they’re making.
As children grow up and become more complex human beings, it’s important to remember awareness. The saying “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks” just isn’t true for this. While stereotypes or generalizations that we develop before adulthood can be cemented for life for those who don’t want to change, we can always challenge our own beliefs about the world around us. A study by the American College Personnel Association at Johns Hopkins University found that people who expose themselves to a diverse group of people “…ultimately…get along with more types of people and therefore work as a more cohesive member of a team”. It also found that simply discussing differences in religion, nationality, or life experiences in a positive way can help people not only become more knowledgeable about other ways of life, but also become more open minded as well. Lastly, the study found that when people interact with those who are different than themselves, they may actually find many similarities among the things that seem to set them apart from each other.
March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, so we hope you will take time this month to challenge stereotypes or generalizations you may have about those who are different than you, find the value in those differences, and try to become more open minded and empathetic. We also hope, if you have children, that you will help them become more aware human beings, which will lead to a more accepting world, and that’s a future we look forward to.