Vicarious Contact

Reading about children who are different increases a child’s comfort levels.

I watched the news coverage of the Orlando mass shooting with deep concern, sadness, and not a little despair. How could this have happened? How can we prevent it from happening again? What can I possibly do in the face of hatred and madness? It all seems so hopeless.

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Illustration by Almitra Clay

Well, actually, as writers, we have an amazing tool available to us that counteracts stereotyping, prejudice, and racism. It’s called vicarious contact.

“In a study investigating how kids respond to cross-racial depictions in picture books, [Krista Maywalt] Aronson and her colleagues randomly assigned children to two groups. The first group was read books that depicted children from different races playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with children from only one racial group.

“After six weeks, they found that children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children in the second group. Perhaps even more importantly, the first group reported that these positive attitudes remained three months after the study was completed.”

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When children read picture books that show diverse characters playing together, they are more comfortable playing in a diverse group themselves. Illustration from WHERE DO FAIRIES GO WHEN IT SNOWS? by Liza Gardner Walsh, illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, DownEast Books.

It turns out that when we see other people doing something, we become more comfortable doing it ourselves. When we see others acting with tolerance and acceptance, we are more inclined to act that way ourselves. And “seeing” includes viewing images of tolerance and reading stories that include tolerance. Of these, the best are stories in which inclusion is not the point of the story but rather a given, a backdrop against which the story plays out.

The oldest, first purpose of storytelling is to instruct, to pass on tribal knowledge from generation to generation. As writers, we can instruct our readers. Those of us who live in large metropolitan areas probably have friends of many races, ethnicities, religions, and genders, but this may not be true for those of us in places with largely homogeneous populations. I’m not just talking about Iowa or Sweden, I also mean segregated urban neighborhoods and gated communities. With books, we can reach into these places and grant our readers vicarious contact, the experience of seeing a diverse group not just tolerating each other, but working together, enjoying each other’s company, and accepting each other as ordinary human beings.

Children can perceive race as early as three months old. By three or four years old, children’s racial context is more or less set. But we can change perceptions. We writers and illustrators can model a world where people get along with others who are different from themselves. Here’s how:

  1. Show diverse characters in a relationship between equals.

    best-friends-200
    Even a princess can have a friendship of equals with her BFF. DO PRINCESSES HAVE BEST FRIENDS FOREVER? by Carmela LaVigna Coyle, illustrated by Mike Gordon
  2. The characters must be recognizably different.
  3. The characters must do something positive together. Children have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Older children go adventuring together. Adults work together to resolve problems for mutual benefit.
  4. Emphasize what the characters have in common, whether it’s a common interest such as dinosaurs or a common threat such as alien invasion.
  5. Point out the characters’ differences in ways that show how those differences combine to make the group stronger. For example, in the all-female Ghostbusters remake, Patty Tolan is the sole black member of the team. She isn’t a college professor like the others, she’s a subway employee, and she brings to the team a deep understanding of the geography and culture of New York City.
  6. Impress upon your readers the characters’ friendship, despite their differences. They should mutually respect and rely upon each other.

Will vicarious contact in your fiction make a difference in our society? Well, let me put it this way: it can’t possibly make things worse, and it has the potential to do a lot of good.

Okay, folks. Go out and save the world.

headshot-FB Kitchen_cover (1)Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine. Aside from 18 years as a technical/science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. A Latina geek originally from Albuquerque, NM, she now resides near Boston, MA with her husband and two daughters. Her debut novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, is forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.

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