Inoculating Our Children Against Racism
Children are not, by nature, racist. Nor are they born with damaging assumptions about people in any definable group. We all begin with a winning trust in others, an expectation that people will be good to each other, and that life with others will be safe and fun. When a child feels close to his parents, gets to play freely with lots of laughter, gets plenty of affection, and has sensible limits set by grown-ups who don't attack him, a young person can feel at home with himself, and relaxed with others.
Contrary to popular belief, children have a keen inborn sense of justice. They are built to protest loudly when they or someone else is being treated badly. This sense of justice runs deep. You probably can remember times in your childhood when you or someone you cared about was attacked, verbally or physically. You didn't have to be told that this treatment was wrong and should be stopped immediately. You just knew. We don't have to teach children respect for people of other races and abilities: we simply need to preserve their trust in themselves and others, and their inborn sense of justice. If a child feel safe and strong, he will respond with indignation to racism, whether it's directed at him or at someone else. He will know that the racist attitude he has witnessed is poison, and won't adopt it as his own.
Treating Children with Respect
Children are able to retain their keen sense of justice if they are treated with respect. Respectful treatment that inoculates a child against racism means several very specific things:
- The child is appreciated for who he is, regardless of what he can or can't do.
- The child is not typecast: generalizations like "shy," "loud," "bossy," are not used, and put-downs like "bratty," "whiny," and "stupid" are also off-limits.
- The child's curiosity is supported: when questions are asked about why people look or act the way they do, those questions are warmly answered at a level the child can understand. In other words, it's OK to be interested in all aspects of being human.
- The child is not compared to others, and judgments like "bad," "good," "better," and "best" aren't used to classify him or other people. This means, for instance, that when asked why some people have to go to jail, saying that those people have done something seriously hurtful to someone else, not that those are bad people. Or asking a child who is kicking others under the dinner table to wrap his legs around the chair legs, rather than telling him he's a bad boy.
- The child is not intimidated for having upsets about the things that matter to him. In particular, the child is allowed to express feelings with crying, tantrums, and "freedom of the mouth" while crying or tantruming. You, as parent, will often set limits that upset your child: that's your job, and it's an important one. However, your child's job is then to blast away the bad feelings that those limits bring forth, so he can recover his sense that you care and that his life is a good one. Crying, tantruming, and raging with permission, during the upset, to tell you fully how he feels, is a healing and cleansing process which restores your child's sense that his life is good, and his trust in you and others.
- The child is not hit, slapped, threatened with physical attack, or shamed and blamed verbally. This kind of attack by adults on children leaves big emotional scars on children, and impresses them with the notion that some people deserve to be called "bad" and then mistreated.
In short, what makes children vulnerable to racism is to treat children like we are better than they are, we know better than they do, we are more important than they are, our feelings have more validity than their feelings.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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