Parenting as Justice Work

A few days ago, my six-year-old had been playing a video game, and told me the characters said they wanted to make the world a better place. Then my son said “It seems like that’s what everyone is trying to do – everyone wants to make the world a better place.”

He said this a few days after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. And I thought to myself “But the challenge is that some people’s view of what would be ‘better’ is very different from other people’s views.”

As we’ve seen this week, some people’s view of a better America is one where everyone is of European descent and where all others have “gone back to where they came from” or have “learned their place.” It’s a view based on hate / prejudice, or driven by fear, or a desire to protect those who are “like me” from those who are different.

My view is of a more just and equitable society, filled with diverse traditions and perspectives, where all members of the society have equal rights and equal protections. My view acknowledges that we are a long ways from that right now, as the marginalized members of our society who may most need the protections are instead the least likely to be well served by our institutions and policies.

What do I, as an individual, do to help work toward my view of a better world? How do I, as a parent, talk to my child about my vision of a better world? What do I, as a parent educator, say to the parents in my classes to encourage them to articulate their own view of a better world and to talk to their children about that? How do I, as a member of a faith community and other communities, work together with others to speak aloud our vision for a better world, knowing that the more voices are united, the more powerful the message is?

Talk about (and embrace) differences

I’ve written three posts in the past, which articulate many thoughts on these topics: Talking to Toddlers About Race; Teaching about Differences and Appreciation of Diversity;  Look Mom! That lady only has one leg! All of these address the fact that children notice differences! (As early as six months, children can classify faces by race and by gender. Source.) They also notice how we respond to them. So, when your preschooler shouts out “Look! That kid has a weird red spot on their cheek!” or “Is that a man or a woman?” or “Why is she wearing that weird robe that covers her all up?” or whatever… think about how to respond. If you “shushhhh” your child, you teach them that the thing they have observed is a shameful thing we don’t talk about in public. If you try to ignore the difference or say “but we’re all the same!” you confuse your child and miss a teaching opportunity.

Here’s another perspective:

“[Being “colorblind”] is not realistic. I’m an African-American woman. … When I walk into a room and I am the only black woman, it’s obvious. There’s no benefit in pretending. …  however, [we don’t] need to act awkward around each other. If we’ve embraced the fact that God has created us as equals, there’s no need or reason for that awkwardness. If someone who is culturally or ethnically different from you comes around, it is unrealistic, unhelpful and possibly unloving to pretend that you don’t notice. So, when your child says, “Mommy why is that woman wearing a dot on her forehead?” Instead of asking them to be quiet out of embarrassment, the colorsmart approach is to take that question as an opportunity to positively explain her different, unique culture. (source)

Here’s another thought:

“I’m going to teach my daughter the truth about race — that our brains are wired to notice looks first. … It’s okay to notice skin color. What’s not okay is to pretend color doesn’t exist. It’s the way you acknowledge color, and how you react, that makes you embrace race, hide from it, or run from it. … it’s [our] job to move beyond primal instinct in order to truly accept everyone — no matter what color or culture they may be. … Step out from behind the curtain of color-blindness, and embrace how not everyone is the same.”   (source)

Or, as one of my friends says to her five-year-old: “everyone’s different, and that’s awesome!”

And it’s not enough to say this with your words… your actions also matter. Children pick up and interpret subtle messages from their environment. So, if all the people you hang out with look and talk a lot like you, your child may interpret that they’re only supposed to hang around people who look and talk like them. (Source)

If we don’t talk about race , religion, abilities and other differences, then our child will come up with their own guesses and interpretations. It is better to talk about it openly so they know our views.

Talk about Inequities

As we talk about differences, and embrace differences, we may also naturally talk about equality – how in the United States, we are supposed to all have equal rights, equal protection, and equal responsibilities. I absolutely want to talk to my child about how things should be. But, I can’t leave it at that… I also have to talk about the fact that things in our country are not truly equal.

“If you tell your kid his entire life that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, are exactly the same, then when your white kid is a white grown up and he sees a disproportionate percentage of the people living in poverty have a different skin color than he does, he’s going to assume it’s because there’s something wrong with them. He will blame the people, not the flawed system. If we’re all the same, those people with brown skin can just work hard and be successful, right? …

By teaching your kids not to see color, you’re teaching them that the black men gunned down by white cops must have been criminals, they must’ve been bad guys, they must’ve deserved it.

By teaching your kids not to see color, you are teaching them that systemic racism does not exist… you are teaching them to be complicit in a culture of racism and fear.

Colorblind is not the answer. Skin color exists. Race exists. Racism exists. To ignore it and pretend it doesn’t is not just the wrong way, but is exacerbating the problem. Ignoring race, being colorblind, teaches kids that there’s nothing to talk about, nothing to discuss. White parents need to ENCOURAGE their kids to talk about race, ask questions, learn. Feed the discussion, not the ignorance.

Teach your kids to celebrate differences. Teach your kids that skin color IS important. Teach your kids that race exists, but bigotry shouldn’t. Teach them that our differences make us amazing. Don’t ignore, embrace.”  (Source)

Talk about Privilege

If I acknowledge that it is harder to be black, or Jewish, or gay in our society, I must also acknowledge that it is easier to be white, Christian, or straight. There is inherent privilege in these identities. “Privilege is the “up-side” of oppression and discrimination. It is about unearned advantage, which can also be described as exemption from discrimination.” Source

Privilege can be mis-interpreted.

“… privilege does not mean that their lives will be easy or that everything is “handed” to them. People tend to think of privilege in terms of super rich people who don’t have to work for anything. It’s hard to see that we are privileged when we are struggling to make ends meet. The fact is that privilege isn’t so much about what is handed to you, it’s about what isn’t even accessible to others. White privilege doesn’t mean that someone gives you a job for no reason, but it might mean that your resume is instantly taken more seriously because your name is John and not Jamal.” Source

I believe that I am a good person, and that I am smart, and that I work hard. So it is easy to believe that I have earned all the things I have in life. But I must also acknowledge that many things were easier for me to earn when I am white, 4th or 5th generation American, of Christian heritage, middle class, straight, cisgender, well-educated, and had a calm childhood with few things that could be considered adverse childhood experiences. (Read more about me and my identity here.)

What are some of the ways I’ve experienced privilege? In a classic essay on Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh lists some examples of the privileges I’ve experienced:

  • I can turn on the TV or open the paper, and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can go shopping… mostly assured I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these things to the bad morals, the poverty of the illiteracy of my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to speak to “the person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I need medical or legal help, my race will not work against me.

My kids will also experience these benefits.

“A white kid growing up in a middle-class family an hour outside Seattle like my kids can work hard and become anything they want to be. A black kid growing up in a poor family in Baltimore could work just as hard as my white kids and not end up in the same place. Do some of those kids “beat the odds” and become super successful? Absolutely. But the fact that there are “odds” to beat is exactly the point of white privilege.” Source

So, what can I do? I’m still going to encourage my kids to be good people and to work hard. When they succeed at something, I’ll still celebrate and tell them they earned it. But when they earn access to some option just because of their privileged status, I will also point that out to them. I’ll ask them to question whether everyone truly had equal access. I’ll ask them to notice when other people do not have the same access as they do, and to question why that is the case.

Use Your Privilege

“Privilege means that you owe a debt. You were born with [privilege]. You didn’t ask for it. And you didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming you for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.”  Source

That might mean speaking up for a person who is being poorly treated at a business due to their marginalized status, or it might mean speaking at a town hall where your voice may be heard better than the voices of those who are often silenced, it might be standing up for someone who is being bullied, or walking alongside marginalized people as they rally for their rights.  There are lots of things we can do as individual adults, and as our kids see us taking action, they learn from our example what our values are.

We can also encourage our children to use their privileges. A mother of a black son (who will transition from “an adorable black boy to a strong black man”) writes:

“We talk to our son about safety issues. We talk to him about being respectful of police (and anyone in authority), about keeping his hands where they are visible, about not wearing his hood up over his face or sneaking through the neighbor’s backyard during hide-and-seek or when taking a shortcut home from school. … Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents.” Source

I’ve got an adorable white boy, who’s likely to transition to a scrawny geeky white man. I don’t have to have these same conversations with him. But I can talk to him about racism (and other -isms) and help him understand how to use his privilege to protect others. As the mother of the black son writes:

“So white parents, please talk to your kids about racism. If they see my son being bullied or called racist names, they need to stand with him. They need to understand how threatening that is and not just something to be laughed off. If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay—just stay right there with my son. Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If they are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble they get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can.

Be conscious of what media messages your kids are getting about race. Engage in tough conversations about what you’re hearing in the news. Don’t shy away from this just because you can. He can’t. We can’t. I have hope that when white parents start talking about these issues with our white kids, that’s when change starts.” Source

When do we start?

We start talking about differences as early as our kids start noticing them. That’s as young as 6 months for race and gender! They start to crystallize beliefs about group identities as by the time they reach preschool. (Source) We can help to shape their initial attitudes on all these things, but not if we don’t start talking about it till they’re 6 or 7 years old. That’s too late to start.

So, from very early on, do step 1: talk about (and embrace) differences.

The other steps are more sophisticated, and require a more advanced cognitive level to understand. As rough estimates: when your kids start talking about what’s fair and what’s unfair is a good time to start talking about equality and step 2 – talking about inequities. This would typically be around age 4 – 6. You can talk about recognizing and using privilege as they get into later elementary school, or before then if you note that they are starting to make assumptions about “____ got that because he deserved it and ____ didn’t get it because she’s not good enough” or any other judgments that imply a developing bias.

Resources for learning more:

To learn more about these topics, click on any of the links above to find lots of great articles.

Also check out resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center. For adults, Ten Ways to Fight Hate. For kids (and educators), the resources on Teaching Tolerance.

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Teaching about Differences and Appreciation of Diversity

 

Young children love to sort things by color, or by shape, or by type (e.g. car or train?). They make sense of their world by seeing how things fit into categories. And in most cases, we encourage them to think about classifications – especially when it helps them to remember to put the Legos in the Lego bin, the books on the bookshelf, and the dirty socks in the laundry basket!

But, when they try to sort out categories of people: race, gender, ability, age, and more, we tend to get all flustered. We worry about saying the wrong thing, causing offense, creating prejudice, etc.

For example, consider our approach to racial differences. Children are very aware of different skin tones, even as young as 6 months. But when kids ask their parents about it, how do they respond? Most non-white parents talk openly and frequently about race. But research finds that 75% of white parents almost never talk about race – they often just change the subject. When well-meaning white parents do talk about race, they often try the “color-blind” approach and say “we’re all the same.” Which mystifies a young child who can clearly see we are NOT all the same.  If parents avoid a subject, or become awkward around it, kids may get the message that the topic is “taboo.”

How might our kids’ perception be changed if we instead acknowledge and celebrate differences?

Talk about Differences. When reading books, watching movies, or people watching, talk about differences easily and openly. Note different skin colors, ages, gender expressions, weight, ability, clothing / hairstyles, languages spoken, family compositions, and more. Use descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, disabled, multi-racial – you can say this just as easily as you can say “look it’s a girl and a boy in that picture”. (As they get older, we’ll help them learn that no one can be defined by any one label. But, as they start to sort things out, talking about differences builds vocabulary and context for understanding the broader world.)

Be careful not to add in biased judgments or stereotypes when talking about differences: “She’s only got a mama, no daddy. That must be hard for her.” “He’s Asian, I bet he does well in school.” “She likes sports? She must be a tomboy.”

Talk about Commonalities. We shouldn’t ignore the differences and only talk about commonalities. But, once you’ve acknowledged a difference your child has noticed, you can also talk about universal needs and common interests. “You’re right, her skin is a different color than yours. Her ancestors came from a different part of the world than ours did. I saw you guys played soccer together for a long time – it seems like she likes it as much as you do.” “Yes, you have just me as your parent, and most of your classmates have two parents – sometimes a mom and a dad, sometimes two moms or two dads. But all of you get lots of love and snuggles, right?” “They wear those special clothes as part of their religion. We don’t wear special clothes, but we do celebrate special holidays because of our religious beliefs.”

Answer Questions about Differences. I have a visible handicap, and it’s pretty common for me to overhear a child saying “mama, how come that lady only has one leg?” Some parents ignore the question, change the subject, or “shush” the child. That tells the child this is something that is “not OK” to talk about. It implies that disability is something shameful or embarrassing to discuss, either for them or for me. Instead, when your child asks questions about differences, try these approaches:

  • Acknowledge the difference – “you’re right, and that’s different than what you’re used to.”
  • After acknowledging it, you could say “we’ll talk about it later” or you could address it now.
  • Give a simple answer to the question, it you know it: “Those are called crutches. They help her to walk.” Or, if you don’t know, you might say “I don’t know why she has one leg… some people are born without one and sometimes they lose a leg in an accident.”
  • Try to figure out how your child is feeling. If they’re simply curious and wanting to learn something, then answer the question they asked. If you sense there’s any fear or discomfort for them, make some guesses about what that is and address it.

Actively expose your child to other perspectives: Eat at ethnic restaurants, attend cultural festivals, visit museums which focus on other cultures, read books and see movies from many countries, learn bits of other languages. Seek out multi-generational communities – make friends with people of all ages. Connect with queer families. Attend public events hosted by faith communities. Choose to live in a diverse neighborhood and/or attend a diverse school.

Choose children’s books which teach about diversity. Look here for info on how to evaluate books (and other media): http://www.teachingforchange.org/selecting-anti-bias-books and here for recommended books www.childpeacebooks.org/cpb/Protect/antiBias.php

Talking about Inequity. In the early years, we can focus on building an appreciation for, and understanding of, a wide variety of differences.

As they get older (around early elementary school), then we add in that even though people may be different, we all have the same rights and deserve the same fair treatment.

As they get even older (by age 8 to 10), we can refine that into “we should all have the same rights and opportunities, but we don’t. What can we do together to help increase everyone’s access to the same opportunities?”

And with teens, we can add in discussion of systemic oppressions – classism, ableism, homophobia, and so on. If you think you can skip these discussions, you likely are coming from a place of privilege. As a white parent, I can choose whether or not to talk about this. If my kids had brown skin, it wouldn’t be an option to not talk about it. Check out this article on how white parents talking about racism can help their kids support friends of color: www.scarymommy.com/black-child-friends/

In an increasingly diverse society, the more we try to pretend racism and sexism and such are things of the past, the more we allow them to persist. Having open and honest conversations about diversity will help us work together toward a more equitable society for all.

Learn more: Even Babies Discriminate – excerpt from Nurture Shock: http://mag.newsweek.com/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html; Teaching Young Children to Resist Bias, from NAEYC: www.cccpreschool.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Teaching-Children-to-Resist-Bias4.pdf; What White Children Need to Know About Race: http://www.nais.org/magazines-newsletters/ismagazine/pages/what-white-children-need-to-know-about-race.aspx

Talking to Toddlers about Race

As parents, we believe our role is to teach children about the world. One of the things ‘good parents’ do is play sorting games with our kids: the ability to sort things is essential to lots of future learning, so we are justifiably proud when our young child can sort all the red toys into one pile and all the blues into another pile, or when they can find all the cows in a group of barn toys, or put a group of objects in order from largest to smallest. We are excited that they have learned to distinguish similarities and differences between things.

And yet, there’s a whole category of similarities and differences we’re hoping they won’t notice. Most of us have a story of walking through the mall and hearing a child loudly blurt out “that man is really fat” or “hey, that lady only has one leg” or “look how dark that guy’s skin is.” And then the parent desperately shushes the child, hoping that no one has heard. Then they just drag them quickly down the hallway and into a store to distract them from the subject… and never come back to it.

Or, the more enlightened parents may try to speak to the child about it, but do it in an odd “code” which tries to validate the personhood of the person they’re talking about (which is good) but without really acknowledging the difference that the child noticed (which is confusing for the child). As Bronson and Merryman say in Nurture Shock, “every parent [in a study] was a welcoming multi-culturalist, embracing diversity. But… hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles in the home – like “everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us”… but they had almost never called attention to racial differences. They wanted their children to grow up color-blind.”

But our children are not color blind! I clearly remember a moment with my oldest when she was less than six months old… maybe even as young as 3 months. She was fussing in an Indian restaurant, and the owner picked her up to dance her around the room a little and show her the artworks on the wall. She never looked at the artwork. She gazed at his face. He was very dark-skinned and the contrast between his skin and his white teeth and eyes fascinated her and all she did was stare at her face, obviously creating in her brain a whole new category of what people can look like.

Our kids notice differences.

They ask ’embarrassing’ questions. They point to people on the bus. They blurt out their observations in malls. (They learn to stop doing that by age 5 or so.)  And the parents shush them. The parents’ shushing sends the message of “Don’t talk about that! That’s a bad thing!” A young child is not sophisticated enough to get the message that the parents intend – something about not hurting the feelings of the person called out. The young child has learned that the difference they noticed (whether obesity, handicap, race, or whatever) is bad and shameful and not to be mentioned in polite company.

When parents don’t talk about race and other differences openly, our children are left to draw their own conclusions. So, amongst the parents who never talked about race, what impressions were their kids left with? “14% said outright, ‘no, my parents don’t like black people’ and 38% … answered ‘I don’t know [how my parents feel about black people.]'”

Bronson and Merryman tell the story of one of their own children. He was raised in a diverse neighborhood and school with parents who tried hard never to highlight the differences between people because they wanted a non-racist “color-blind” child. At almost five years old, he never mentioned skin color. They thought things were going perfectly.

“Then came Martin Luther King Jr. day at school… that weekend, [the son] started pointing at everyone, proudly announcing ‘That guy comes from Africa. And she comes from Africa too!’ Clearly he’d been taught to categorize skin color and he was enchanted with his skill at doing so. ‘People with brown skin are from Africa’, he’d repeat. He had not been taught the names for races – he had not heard the term ‘black’ and he called us ‘people with pinkish-whitish skin.’ … we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase ‘skin like ours.’ And this notion of ours versus theirs started to take on a meaning of its own.” Soon, children make broad sweeping generalizations about what ‘people like me’ do, and about what ‘people like them’ do.

This view of “us” vs. “them” increases. Amongst teenagers, the more diverse the school, the more likely that all their friends are the same race as they are. “The odds of a white high-schooler in America having a best friend of another race is only 8%…. 85% of black kids’ best friends are also black.” (Bronson and Merryman)

Minority parents are more likely to talk to their kids about race than white parents. They tend to do it in two contexts: one is preparing the child for future discrimination, the other is with ethnic pride. In the case of preparation-for-bias, it appears that a little education helps the kids be resilient when they are faced with discrimination. However if the parents over-focused on discrimination, then the child was likely to blame his/her failures on other people – who they saw as biased against them. Ethnic pride coaching helps the child’s self-confidence and helps them be more engaged in school.

Although white kids are not usually coached in ethnic pride, Bronson and Merryman say “white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth and control in society.”

So, how do we talk with young children about race?

Think about the way we talk about gender as a model. We have no concerns at all with calling some kids boys and some girls, or asking how many girls were in their class, or telling them to hand something to ‘that man.’ It’s OK to also use language to label the racial differences that children notice and give them the vocabulary to talk about that. We tell kids ‘women can be doctors and men can be doctors.’ We can say just as nonchalantly ‘your doctor is Asian-American and your dentist is white.’

We can choose to live in places or go to school in places with ethnically diverse populations, and encourage our children to make a variety of friends. We want to help our children see all that they have in common with diverse friends: “all three of you love dinosaurs” or “you both really like to play in the playground.” But we can also acknowledge and talk about the differences: “you live just with me, your friend lives with her parents and her grandparents from India” or “you have dark curly hair and you’ve noticed your friend’s hair is blond and soft” or “that woman wears a head scarf because that is what women of her religion wear.” We don’t want to say “all people are the same under the skin”, because that misses the beauty of our society’s diversity and also does not help your child understand their world.

With our toddlers: We can read books, and watch movies, and look at artwork that represent a global array of people. When reading, watching movies, or people watching, talk about differences easily and openly. Note different skin colors, ages, gender expressions, weight, ability, clothing / hairstyles, and family compositions. Use descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, disabled. We will, of course, help them understand as they grow older that no one can be defined by any one label. But, as they start to sort things out, talking about differences builds vocabulary and context for understanding the broader world.

With our preschoolers: We can’t say “we’re all equal”, because sadly that’s not true in our society. We can say “we all have equal rights” and “we all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our race and religion.” We can teach our young children about respect for others and about justice and equality.

When these children reach elementary school, they will begin to notice inequities. They may talk about how someone has a bigger house with more toys, or they may notice that children eat subsidized breakfast at school, or they may notice that children get picked on for the color of their skin. Then we can begin discussions about racism and inequality. We’ve already given them the vocabulary to describe difference. We’ve given them the value of equal rights. Now, and as they get older, we can talk about our roles in moving our society toward that ideal of equal rights for all.

Read Bronson and Merryman’s chapter on race here:
www.newsweek.com/even-babies-discriminate-nurtureshock-excerpt-79233 and some discussion questions to reflect on after reading it: https://suite.io/lynn-brogan/29we2rj