The need to talk to your children about diversity in these violent times.
I was headed into a store yesterday and saw a mother flanked by two children walking from the parking lot into the store. Exiting the store and walking into the parking lot was an older woman on crutches with one leg. The older woman was already about ten yards away and I noticed as the little boy continually turned around to watch her navigate the world on one leg. He looked curious and attentive. We can all probably predict what would happen just a few seconds later as the little boy asked, “Mom, why does she have only one leg?” Nervously and quickly, she replied, “Honey, shhh, that’s not nice.”
But what happens when parents respond to children this way along lines of difference? What message does this send to children about people who look, behave, and experience the world differently?
Little white and black girls might play at a park together and touch each other’s hair out of curiosity for the different textures and colors, not knowing how race and racism circumscribe that moment. Little boys might see two men kissing at a restaurant and ask adults what that is all about and may be responded to with silence, disdain, or shame or all of that combined.
Children often ask adults about difference when they are very little, when the moment is tender and supple and malleable—when it would be most possible to generate greater tolerance, acceptance, care and love. How we meet children and receive their questions in those moments says much more about parental discomfort and societal construction of issues and the reaction to these issues than anything about what the children are asking. In those moments, children are not judging; they are perceiving. They are conveying inquisitiveness for the world larger than themselves—-a good thing that we need to encourage more of, not less.
Responses like the one I witnessed at the store that invoke hushed tones and silence do not invite children to ask that same adult more questions but most importantly they also do not stop the questioning. Responses like these also do something else that is damaging—they add an overlay of judgment of the perception of difference, they convey that the other person is Other, someone with whom to maintain distance and to be afraid, and these responses are dishonest about the value in the variability of lived experiences. What is also interesting is that the small child in a scenario like this is merely asking a question and not indicating a capacity of cruelty based on differences.
I trust that the mother at the store was not intending to be malicious in any way and likely saw herself as trying to show her son how to be kind to strangers in a public place. Parents are challenged by many things, and at a time in history like this that is particularly emotionally charged and intense with such recent hateful violence across lines of difference, parents are faced with the difficult task of how to support their children amidst collective grief and crisis and how to cope themselves.
There are two assignments I do with college students that seem to have more relevance now than ever. One is that I create a writing activity and discussion in which they reflect on a time when they were small children and saw someone different than themselves and asked an adult about it. They have to recall what they observed, what they asked, how they were responded to, and how they wish the person would have responded.
In addition, I assign a project to students to seek out a person very different than themselves, either because of religion, race, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, disability, etc., and to initiate a conversation and interview with the person and to write a paper about it, connecting to class concepts and reflecting on their experiences.
Time and time again, what these class assignments and activities reveal is young people’s inherent curiosity to know “the other” and the ways that social interaction and the social construction of differences often diminishes this possibility. Students express relief and even joy in learning a more truthful rendering from the people themselves who inhabit a category of difference with which they are less acquainted.
All of this points to the critical need for parents to meet young children where they are in the questioning process and to help create the possibilities of bridges toward real dialogue. After all, it is fear of those we do not know or seek to understand that fuels so much of the hate, abrasiveness and violence in our midst.