By Dr. Dana Harris
As violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12 with three killed and dozens more injured, TV screens, news reporters, as well as individuals of all shapes, sizes, and colors filled with streets with images of violence, chaos and terror. The weekend’s events were as disturbing and repulsive as they were demoralizing.
Not since the turn of the century has the United States experienced as much diversity as in the last two decades. While this diversity has given our country its vitality and cultural richness, it has also caused some serious problems including racism, prejudice, discrimination, and a lack of respect for one another. We are without a doubt facing a new demographic landscape that is reshaping the nature of our schools, our cities and our nation at large.
As parents, we have a moral responsibility to help children process and understand what they are exposed to and to counteract negative messages they may hear. While children certainly need us to protect them, they also need us to be honest about the way the world is and share with them information about the way we think it should be. Children learn biases from important adults in their lives, from the media, from books and from peers. While we may want our children to understand that shared characteristics, language and customs are expressed in different ways. Attitudes are similarities and differences among people should begin in early childhood. Both the seeds of respect and seeds of intolerance need to be planted when they are very young and nurtured by real life experiences along with the attitudes of those around them as they grow up.
Our goal as parents is to help in the process of enabling our children so that they are able to flourish in a diverse society. If we want to lift up the next generation of children, a powerful way to do so is by initiating those courageous conversations. Children are quite perceptive. They hear and see what is happening around them. They are also able to acknowledge the injustices that exist and feel confused and unsafe when they understand why this is occurring. Yes, it’s reasonable to want to protect our children, to maintain their innocence for as long as possible. But this can be a disservice in the long run. Your child is going to secure the news somewhere, and controlling their first exposure allows you to make sure they’re getting accurate information in an age-appropriate manner. A golden rule of parenting using best practices is to present key strategies, create strong family bonds, and guide them towards becoming happy, responsible adults while raising them to be inclusive, accepting and racially conscious children.
The greatest anthropologist, Margaret Mead once said that she could never understand our priorities. She further commented, “We are required by law for people to get a driver’s permit, but we allow people to bring up their children without demonstrating any aptitude for parenting.” Let’s face it; there is no ideal parent and no ideal child. Raising a child and fully understanding that as parents, each of us try to do the best we can with the tools and resources we have. Few of us ever enter into the sacred journey of parenthood with the tools necessary for success. They reality is; most of us are totally unaware of the extraordinary dynamics that exist in the relationship we have with our children.
It’s never too early or too late to talk to children about respecting others, diversity, or cultural biases. After all, raising our young people to live an authentic and self-fulfilling life is a process that continues throughout our lives. The conversations are rarely easy. Don’t feel badly if you don’t have all the answers. As parents however, we must take the time and patience to ensure that our children learn and grow to become responsible adults who will always value and honor diversity. After all, they deserve nothing less.
The following are valuable tips to help begin important conversations with your child. These suggestions were published in the Teaching Tolerance Booklet; Beyond the Golden Rule; A Parent’s Guide to Preventing & Responding to Prejudice.
Be Honest – Don’t be afraid to bring it up. Let’s face it, the race talk is as difficult as the birds and the bees talk. This may be attributed to the awkwardness to a lack of communication about race in many of our own childhoods. Parents may naively believe that is they talk about issues of race with their children, it may cause them to notice race in a way that they did not before. What’s most important is that parents don’t encourage children not the see color or tell children that we are all the same. Rather, discuss differences openly and highlight diversity by choosing picture books, toys and games that feature diverse characters in positive, non-stereotypical roles.
Embrace curiosity – Be careful not to ignore or discourage your youngster’s questions about differences among people, even if the questions make you uncomfortable. Not being open to such questions sends the message that difference is negative. Explain to kids that very real issue of racism and prejudice. While racism and prejudice aren’t factors in every incident, they certainly are factors in many. When your child has faced such an incident, don’t be afraid to name it.
Model equity – As parents, we are our kids first teachers. When it comes to teaching tolerance, actions speak louder than words. Do something – Take a stand when you witness injustices. Challenge racism, bigotry and stereotypes, and encourage your child to take action too.
Live Congruently – Discuss the important of valuing differences is essential, but modeling this message is even more vital. Do your actions match the values you discuss with your child? Teens are more likely to be influenced by what you do than what you say.
Admit Your Own Issues – We all struggle with prejudice, bias and stereostypes. Be honest with kids about your own issues and how you want to overcome them. Not everyone who struggles with bias or prejudice is “bad”. Knowing this can help kids grow to recognize their own biases and encourages them to search for common ground with others.
Talk Regularly – Don’t wait for an incident of racism or bias to occur before discussing such issues with kids. Look critically at stereotypes and race issues in the media and in everyday life. Incorporate discussions about such issues in day-to-day conversations. When we are honest with our children about our country’s history, of bigotry, sexism and stereotypes, we help prepare them to challenge these issues when they arise. A child who knows the racial history of the Confederate flag, for example, is less likely to brandish that symbol out of ignorance.
Emphasize the Positive – Just as you should challenge your child’s actions if they indicate bias or prejudice, it’s important to praise them for behavior that shows respect and empathy for others. Catch your child treating people kindly, let them know you noticed and discuss why it’s a desirable behavior.
Seize Teachable Moments – Look for everyday activities that can serve as springboards for discussion. School-age children respond better to lessons that involve real-life examples than to artificial or staged discussions about issues.
Lead by Example – The best way to reduce children’s prejudices is to model an inclusive home, demonstrating that you have friends of all backgrounds. Parents who have learned to lead multicultural lives, connecting with people different from themselves are more likely to have children who develop those important life skills at an early age. Feel free to combine these powerful suggestions using scenarios from your everyday life. In this way, you will be able to build your own ‘Parenting Toolbox’ based on what is most helpful and/or appropriate for your and your family. Our work on many critical issues continues. I passionately believe that if more people found ways to examine their day-to-day interactions and began to sit down and honestly discuss race issues, our nation would be a healthier place and more tolerate for it.
Source: SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center Publication; Beyond the Golden Rule; Contributor Writer, Dana Williams; Illustrations by Vincent Nguyen.
Recommended Books that Teach Children about Race
• The Colors of Us – written by Karen Katz
• The Skin You Live In – written by Michael Tyler and illustrated by Davis Lee Csicsko
• A Rainbow of Friends – written by P.K. Hallinan
• Shades of People – written by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly
• Chocolate Me! – written by Taye Diggs and illustrated by Shane W. Evans
• I Love My Hair – written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and illustrated by E.B. Lewis
• It’s Okay to be Different – written by Todd Parr
• Black is Brown is Tan – written by Arnold Adoff and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
• Dancing in the Wings – written by Debbie Allen and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
• Whoever You Are – written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Leslie Staub
• God’s Dream – written by Archbishop Desmon Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams and illustrated by LeUyen Pham
• Snow in Jerusalem – written by Deborah Da Costa and illustrated by Ying-Hwa Hu and Cornelius Van Wright
• My Name is Yoon – written by Helen Recorvits and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
• My First Biography Martin Luther King, Jr – written by Marion Dane Bauer
• Cassie’s Word Quilby – written by Faith Ringgold
• Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans – written by Kadir Nelson
• Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier
• I am Rosa Parks – written by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins
• Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad – written by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
• Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – written by Mildred D. Taylor
Dr. Dana Harris is a retired educator and educational consultant
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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