WATCH | How a children’s book change the way we think about family

We are what we learn to be, the old adage goes. Nelson Mandela echoed the idea when he implored South Africans to teach their children to love before they learn to hate.

The former comes more naturally, the great man believed. For adults, it’s about unlearning harmful habits and patterns of thought that may not have been noticed growing up.

But with children the slate is still clean. Their young minds are malleable – which is why Elena Agnello is certain she can secure their hearts for the future.

The mother of two is a children’s book author. Her first book, I Am Alex, was published last year and deals with diversity in family structures.

When Agnello had her first child she was shocked by the uniformity of the homes represented in children’s literature.

Having grown up in a household headed by a single mother, she understands the need for kids to see themselves and their unique family structures in the stories they read.

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“I think it’s vital that we have this conversation with our children,” says Agnello. “I wish that children would be taught more about others and their traditions.”

Her book is set at a birthday party and introduces readers to all sorts of families through the guests.

Like Agnello, one child at the party has a single parent, while another is being raised by adoptive parents.

The point is for children to feel included and to develop a culture of incorporating others into their world views.

In South Africa, only a third of our children are raised in homes with both parents according to the 2011 census.

Families aren’t defined by numbers or the closeness of relatives, but by an environment of care formed between people who love one another.