As I floundered trying to find a foothold in a foreign country, it became clear to me that to survive in today’s global village, being respectful of intra and inter-group diversity is critical. I decided to accept and share my Indian identity with others. Simultaneously, I eagerly learned all that I could about a vastly different country that I had decided to call home.
This mindset not only helped with the transition process, but it became part of my general outlook to life. The easy temptation to arrive at prejudiced and knee-jerk reactions was curbed. Instead, rationality set in to arrive at well thought out conclusions. In return, ‘others’ were accepting of me and respectful of where I came from.
Given the trajectory of my personal journey, it’s no surprise then that Elmer by David McKee, remains an exciting discovery to translate my ideas about inclusiveness to my young children. A few years ago, I chanced upon this endearing piece of children’s literature. Every time I read it to my first grader and preschooler, I find Elmer’s story a charming exploration of identity, diversity and acceptance; topics that are close to my heart. Here’s a summary of the story to offer some context:
Elmer, the elephant’s story is set in an idyllic jungle, where the animals appear to live in harmony. He’s famous and stands out because he’s not gray like the rest in his herd, but his skin is a patchwork of bright colors. He’s lively, cracks jokes, and is well-loved. But he’s weary of being different. He wants to be like the rest. So, one day he sneaks out at the crack of dawn to cover himself with the gray colored juice of a berry variety found outside the jungle. As he’s leaving, the animals greet him by name. Once, covered in the gray berry juice, he isn’t Elmer anymore, but just another elephant. He enjoys the anonymity and joins the herd only to realize that his friends miss his presence. To lighten up the mood, he startles them all with a loud “Boo!” Just then a rain cloud bursts and Elmer’s gray color washes off, making his friends laugh even harder. They understand his conundrum of wanting to fit in and be like the rest of them, and decide to celebrate his uniqueness by instituting an annual ‘Elmer’s Day Parade.’ On that day, all the elephants transform themselves into colorful patchwork elephants, and Elmer colors himself gray.
This seemingly simple story presents nuanced themes around diversity and identity for children and adults alike. As a parent, it has made me think about the many ways I could extend the “Elmer conversation” with my boys and make dense yet critically relevant concepts around tolerance and diversity more palatable for them. Here’s how Elmer’s story has motivated my actions as I endeavor to raise culturally sensitive kids.
Let kids see color
It may seem counterintuitive, but Elmer made me realize the merit in allowing children to see differences in color. In fact, it should be encouraged. After all, isn’t Elmer’s myriad of colors a big part of what makes him so intriguing and lovable?
Children notice color. It’s a fact. Their curious brains notice more than we realize. It’s okay for them to ask questions like why their friend’s hair or skin color is lighter or darker than theirs. Providing thoughtful answers could help them understand, respect and hopefully, embrace diversity. A blanket response on the lines of “we’re all the same” is not only inaccurate, it’s counter-productive. It impedes curiosity and makes kids (and later, as adults), dismissive of diversity and racial differences.
Let them understand where they come from
Sociologists have maintained that a sense of community and being part of society is innate to human nature. Maybe that’s why Elmer wanted to so badly fit in with the rest of the herd. It was important for him to feel part of a larger whole. Our children, no matter where they live, are no different. As an example, even at ages four and seven, my boys endeavor to understand where they are situated in the world.
There are some simple ways to make questions of identity and belonging tangible for children. As an example, I put up a map of the world in my kids’ room. We talk about the continents, the various countries, and the cultural plethora thriving within these countries. These animated discussions meander and loop around to where they are in the country, the world, to where their parents and grandparents come from. It’s a simple, yet effective way to visually anchor them in the world providing them a sense of belonging.
Empathy is key
An understanding of identity, racial diversity and cultural tolerance is incomplete without empathy. Empathy in children and adults is a key predictor of social and emotional success in varied situations – at an interpersonal level, at work, etc. Empathy also makes us more reasonable individuals. Teaching children to be empathic, in a weird way, even makes their tantrums (somewhat) manageable. It’s true!
Elmer’s story offers a gentle, yet firm reminder on the point around empathy. Elmer’s behavior raises numerous conversations from this perspective. The most obvious questions being: ‘Why is Elmer unhappy, even though everyone loves him?’ or ‘Why does he hide his colors in an even shade of gray?’ Finally, it’s heartening to see the herd’s true expression of empathy towards the patchwork colored elephant by instituting an annual festival named after Elmer to celebrate his uniqueness.
As adults, we can consciously extend the empathy message from Elmer’s experience to our children. For instance, I miss no opportunity in reminding my kids to put themselves in another individual or group’s shoes. At the playground, at school, or while reading a book, it’s always interesting to ask questions like “why do you think (s)he’s sad or happy?”
Elmer, the patchwork elephant’s story weaves themes of identity, diversity and tolerance into its narrative. It offers parents an opportunity to think about and start a dialog with their children around these topics. The biggest takeaway for me is that the patchwork elephant’s friends love him because he’s different. Consequently, as readers we learn that it’s ok to see, embrace and celebrate diversity.
As of now, I have much to thank Elmer for I actively embrace the teachings of the goofy patchwork elephant with my young children. I foresee our elementary “Elmer conversations” broaden as life’s situations evolve and become more complex with the passing of time!
Nidhi is an avid traveler and reader, a sushi and yoga lover. Her life before kids was spent in the ever-dynamic field of communication sciences. She is now a full time mom to two children. Reading and playing with her two high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. They have (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. Children’s literature has been an inspiring new discovery for her as she’s constantly seeing the world through little eyes.