With hate crimes on the rise and just a general sense of increasing intolerance, a lot of people are wondering what to tell their kids. We don’t want to resort to lectures and be tuned out, but we don’t want to just say nothing and let them absorb whatever comes.
Here are some ideas for where to start.
1) Realize that kids notice differences, even if you’re trying to downplay them.
Some parents think the ideal is to raise a color-blind child, but studies have shown that this is impossible. Kids notice that people are different colors. They also notice when friends are observing different rituals, or when people have disabilities, or have same-sex rather than opposite-sex partners.
They see all this, and they might not bring it up, but you should.
2) More dialogue is better.
You’re never going to get it right all the time. If you’re waiting to talk about difference until you can do it perfectly, you’ll never bring it up at all.
If you feel like you make a misstep, then keep talking. Especially with older children, acknowledging that these are complicated subjects is a good way to go. People have prejudices; they have blind spots; they can be ignorant; they can have thoughts they wish they didn’t.
The goal is to challenge these thoughts, not to castigate yourself for having them. Become more aware of biases. Become more aware of how different your reality may be from someone else’s. Encourage children of all ages to take imaginative empathic leaps: “How would you feel if…?” “What do you imagine that’s like for…?”
With little kids, reading books that have diverse characters and cultures is good. Then discuss how different people feel. Building empathy in kids of all ages is the key. You want them to consider how they’d feel if they were judged on the basis of things they can’t control. You also want them to see the strengths in cultures that are not their own.
3) Pay attention to your own language and behavior (when you’re not focused on a teachable moment.)
When you’re having a discussion specifically about issues, you’re undoubtedly careful. But what about the rest of the time?
You know the old adages: Practice what you preach; walk the walk. They’re especially relevant to this topic. If you model acceptance for your children, they’ll take that in. If you model intolerance while paying lip service to acceptance, they’ll take that in the strongest of all.
Go places where people look different and behave differently than you. Stretch yourself. But also enjoy yourself. What might initially be uncomfortable can ultimately be fulfilling, and that’s a great thing for children to know. Kids need to realize they’re not always going to be in the majority, and that’s okay. It can be good teaching to know what it feels like NOT to be in the majority; that will help them empathize with others.
Let your kids witness you doing acts of kindness and generosity. You don’t need to underscore them verbally (“See what I just did?”). They’ll get it, especially if you do them repeatedly.
When possible, show your kids what it means to stand up for something, or for someone. Those moments won’t come often, but when they happen, they’ll make a big impact on your children.
Act in service of the world you want to create for yourself and your children.