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Raising World Changers

Raising World Changers

My daughter “got in trouble” at school a couple months ago. “Got in trouble” is in quotes because, like all sensitive children, her perception of trouble is a far cry from any actual trouble. Still, the recess teacher did talk to her and that counts in her book.

The problem happened during a game of 4-square. There was a disagreement over whether the ball was in or out of bounds. Eventually the disagreement escalated into a full-blown argument and my daughter weighed in on the side of the underdog, a fellow new-kid in school who was now in tears over being yelled at by the others.

By the time the teacher got involved, both girls were crying. When my daughter relayed this part of the story, the hurt and outrage was still fresh in her voice. What really got to her wasn’t the disagreement about the game or the boundaries, it was the response of the teacher. In a reasonable effort to calm down two crying girls, the teacher said to them, “This isn’t a big problem, just let it go.”

But bless her heart, in my daughter’s eyes this was a big problem. Someone had been treated unfairly. “She’s new, mom! And no one would listen to her. They’re all friends already so they just believed what they wanted to believe.”

Several weeks ago, a fellow parent asked me how we’re supposed to raise children in a world like ours. With acts of violence splattered all over the news and fear running rampant, what can we do to keep our children safe?

I hear this question with a mother’s heart. My first instinct is to say, “Lock them up in a safe-house.” And when that turns out to be impractical, maybe we could let them out on occasion, with full-body armor and clear instructions to stay away from any trouble.

Of course this isn’t the response of my best self. This is the voice of my fearful self, worried about my child. This is the part of me that wakes up at 3 a.m. to worry about how I’ll keep her safe when all I see is danger. But that part of me forgets that there’s a whole world of children out there and every one of them is precious.

This is why the real secret to raising children in today’s world isn’t to create safety, it’s to build courage.

The world is full of unfairness. It’s full of people banding together against the powerless, watching out for their own interests. But it’s also full of people who are standing together to create a new power structure. It’s full of people who are willing to cry over injustices that aren’t their own, and to demand that people listen when they might not want to otherwise.

Raise those people.

When my daughter told me this story, I just hugged her and assured her that I knew the teacher hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” I said.

What I wish I’d added was this: you did the right thing. Standing up for someone who is hurting is the best way to be human. Sometimes people won’t listen. But sometimes they will. That’s what makes it worth it.”

This is how we raise children in a world like ours: we do it bravely.

 

 

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Several years ago, as a newly-hired education consultant working for the Department of Human Services, a preschool teacher approached me with a question.

“How do I talk to kids about race and tolerance?”

Being completely unschooled in this topic, I answered this:

“With preschoolers, I wouldn’t worry too much about direct teaching. I would focus more on making it a non-issue. Little kids are so open and accepting naturally. We don’t have to teach them to be non-prejudiced, we just need to provide an environment that keeps them that way.”

My approach here was the “colorblind” approach. The theory goes like this: if we don’t draw attention to race, children won’t either. They’ll grow up accepting difference rather than being afraid of it.

Anyone out there who knows anything about race and prejudice is cringing right now. I know. I cringe just remembering it. Worst. Advice. Ever. Unfortunately, it’s common. A Washington Post article highlights the prevalence of this:

“In a recent study of more than 100 parents, 70 percent fell into this “colorblind” or “colormute” category, and one of the main reasons for choosing this approach was that they did not want their children to pay attention to race and develop biases. More than half of the parents also indicated that they did not perceive a need to discuss race because it had never been an issue.”

Let’s deconstruct a bit.

First, the underlying assumption isn’t bad. Kids are naturally open and accepting. They are actually drawn to differences because their curious little minds are seeking out every bit of information they can find. They are scientists, collecting data about the world.

You know what this looks like. It’s the white 4 year old standing in the grocery store loudly asking, “Mom! Why did that person paint himself?” (A true quote.) Or the black little girl petting a white little girls hair, muttering, “It feels so flat.” (Another true story.)

These are mortifying for parents as we rush to explain that people come in all kinds of skin tones, or that hair comes in all kinds of textures. But overall, they are valuable teaching moments. We make a quick comment about “all people are different and that’s ok.” And we are grateful for our sweet little innocent children who aren’t bothered by these differences at all.

This was the image in my mind as I gave my advice: give children room to be curious, don’t be prejudiced yourself, and kids won’t have to be taught about equality later. Instead, they’ll be reaffirmed in what they already know.

The fallacy is the assumption that this was the only message children would receive. Who knows, maybe this would work in culture that was both diverse and equal. But that’s not our culture–yet.

The truth is, we’re receiving countless, subtle messages each and every day. We see a disproportionate number of minorities working in lower paying jobs. We see more news stories involving people of color in crime. We see more whites in positions of leadership. And our rational, scientific, colorblind-trained brains make the logical leap: this is right. Only the leap is more of a short hop. It’s so subtle, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Somewhere along the way, though, we begin to internalize a message that minorities are somehow “less than” whites.

It doesn’t stop there. We’re fooling ourselves if we think our children aren’t hearing overtly racist viewpoints. They are. As much as I want the age of racism to be over, it’s not. There are still people out there holding genuinely racist views. If I’ve heard it, you know my daughter’s heard it–or will soon. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from cooky uncle Max, or that old church member we’ve never trusted anyway. Kids will hear these messages. And if we don’t offer an alternative view, the message of discrimination will be the only message they get.

Our silence on the topic of race won’t promote unity.
Instead, it will be taken as assent to the message that’s already being received, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly: racial differences should be feared and inequality is justified.

It all boils down to this: we have to talk to our kids about race, prejudice and discrimination.

Last February, my daughter came home from school so excited about a lesson they’d had on Rosa Parks. Her eyes lit up as she told me the story.

“Can you believe that Black people used to be treated that way? That’s not fair, Mama. I’m so glad that doesn’t happen any more.”

And her trusting, excited little 8 year old eyes made it even harder to say what I had to say next.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? And the Montgomery Bus Boycott was so brave, and so important. You’ll get to learn about more things people did to change our laws. (deep breath) But you know what, we still don’t treat people fairly all the time. (I swear to you, her little face fell and I felt like I’d just betrayed Santa Claus.) A lot of times, people with different skin colors are still discriminated against. It’s really, really hard. And really important that we keep working to stop it.”

This was hard, this brief little comment. Harder than it should have been. It was hard for me to overcome my natural tendency toward the “colorblind approach.” It was hard for me to dash her little hopes. It was actually even hard for me to talk about race in modern America, which just proves how ingrained all of this is.

We’re fooling ourselves, though, if we think we can avoid these issues for our children. The truth is, they will have to confront them sooner or later. Either now, under our guidance, or as part of some hard inner work when they’re adults.

I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to avoid these hard conversations. They have to be had sometime–either with me or with someone else. And it’s too important to leave to someone else.