I used to be a henna artist, so I had the privilege of hanging out with all kinds of interesting people from many different cultures. When Viktor was three years old, a Muslim woman, in full burqa, visited my home studio to learn how to do henna. Viktor bounced into the living room, looked at the woman, and exclaimed “You’re pretty!” Then they asked if she wanted to play hide and seek, much to the delight of the woman and her husband (though she politely declined). After Viktor bounced back out of the room, they both explained to me that they weren’t used to being treated that way in the U.S: Most kids were afraid of them and most adults either ignored them or treated them with open hostility. Hearing their stories hurt my heart, but it was lifted again when the woman told me that she had hope now that she’s met a non-Muslim family with a child that treated them as friends.
This couple was sweet, open, and very human. Why shouldn’t my family treat them like friends? “Because they are different. Because they are Muslim. Because they dress weird and talk funny.” That’s not gonna fly in this family, which already has enough diversity to fill several inappropriate joke books. We’ve had lesbian moms, a Polish dad, an elderly Asian mother, a transgender non-binary teen, some rabidly Christian Aunties of Malay descent, and many family members with various mental illnesses and addictions. Then there’s our friends — gays/bisexuals galore, Jewish folk, Muslims, Pagans, Hindus, disabled, neurodiverent, and every color, from translucent to nearly night-sky black.
We were not born with prejudices and bigotry. Children have to be taught to hate other people based on their appearance, abilities, or religious preferences. As parents, we are their biggest role models and teachers, so if they are going to learn intolerance, they are probably going to learn it from us. This is why we have to be SO careful when we’re around our children… we could be cracking a joke, or using words that aren’t very appropriate, and though we think it’s all in innocence, the real innocents are listening and learning. This is why it’s not funny if you say “That’s gay,” or “How r****ded.” You have to think before you speak.
Even if we do our damnedest to teach children tolerance, we’re going to end up fighting against other influences. School, friends, and even other family members will be impacting their impressionable minds daily.
When I was three years old, my stepmom and I were shopping at a grocery store when I pointed to a woman of African descent and asked Mom if she was a “n*****.” Loudly. Mom, who is one of the most tolerant and sensitive people who ever walked the Earth, apparently turned ashen and rushed me out of the store, after apologizing repeatedly to the lady. When we got to the parking lot, she drilled me on where I had heard that word. It turns out that my babysitter had made some comments while flipping through a magazine with me, and I picked it right up, as toddlers will. Thank goodness, Mom was able to undo the damage and I still can’t say that word, nor hear it, without a sick feeling in my stomach. Not surprisingly, that babysitter never came back.
At what age did you learn to be a bigot? When did you first negatively describe a person by their disability, their religious beliefs, their sexual preference or their ancestry? Will you feel pride or shame when you hear your child utter their first racial slur? Because unless you take some important steps and precautions, your children may end up with all of these delightful features, and then some.
Here are some things that you can practice to help your kids remain open-minded and fight bigotry.
- Watch your words. If you don’t want your child to say something, don’t say it yourself. Even as a joke, Even if you think they aren’t listening. If someone else says something inappropriate in front of your child, call them out on it. If you can’t do that, for whatever reason, let your kid know as soon as possible that what the person said wasn’t ok and isn’t how we’re supposed to talk about people.
- If a child slips up, correct them gently. If they slipped up in front of a person who would be personally offended by the comment, make sure that the offended party is apologized to; by you, at the very least, and with your child paying attention. Then let them know that we don’t use those words because they can hurt people. As they get older, you can explain why – Words have histories, and knowing that history helps us to remember how they are hurtful and why we shouldn’t use them.
- When your child asks why Uncle Dave lives with Uncle William, or why those two ladies are holding hands, explain in simple language. “They are in love, just like Mom and Dad” (or fill in the end with which ever hetero couple you would like.) That’s all a little kid needs to know. If they are older, they still don’t need to know much else, but if they ask questions, answer them with honesty and openness.
- If you don’t know the answer to a cultural question, such as “Why is that man wearing a little round thing on his head?,” look it up with your child, or ask the person about it if the situation allows it.
- Expose your kids to all different kinds of people. Volunteer at a camp or class for disabled children with your kids, or participate in a program like Meals on Wheels. Watch movies from foreign countries showing their customs. When you see someone dressed differently, like in a sari, turban, or habit, comment positively on it and talk about why they might be wearing that clothing.
- Be a great role model. Be friendly and open to everyone you meet. Cut back on the inappropriate comments and jokes, even when your kids aren’t listening… habits are hard to break. Conversely, if you have a friend or family member who constantly spews bigoted remarks, either ask them to cut it out, or stop hanging around them. Definitely don’t leave your children alone with them.
- When you meet a person who is disabled in some way, don’t discourage your child from asking questions, if they are curious and the situation allows it. Most people would prefer to be asked rather than being pointed at, whispered about, stared at, or laughed at.
- Remind your children, as often as possible, that all people are different and that they all deserve love and respect. Make it a mantra. Another mantra: “Different does not mean wrong.”
- Talk to your kids about intolerance. Let them know that they might hear other adults or kids talk rudely about different kinds of people. Empower them to stand up for the person being picked on.
Our culture is changing, and you can help. Don’t forget that, up until 1967, my white self would not have been allowed to marry my Asian husband. Thank goodness we had enough tolerant and outspoken people who were able to change the laws. We’re still working on changing the minds of people around us… in our backwoods area, we still get looks, but at least no one is getting lynched. Raising the next generation to be even more open minded, and less bigoted, can only make the world a better place.