The older my oldest child gets (she is 6 now), the more I am struck by what a responsibility it is to raise a child. Diapers, potty training, healthy eating habits, illnesses… like that’s not enough, right? I actually have to raise these little people into independent, responsible adults!
It didn’t take me long to figure out that children are little sponges, absorbing everything you say and do, every experience molding them. Children start as blank slates, but it sure is hard to erase them if you make a boo-boo!
I have taught my children tolerance and acceptance of others. We respect all differences including religions and customs. There is no “right” or “wrong,” just differences. Children are so innocent and unjaded, that they can sometimes make embarrassing observations. When my daughter was about 2 1/2, we were in the drug store, and there was a woman beside us covered in freckles. Of course, my daughter enthusiastically says “Wow, she has a lot of spots on her face!” I stood there for a second, hoping the shelf behind me would open up and swallow me whole, or I’d melt into a puddle so I could ooze away. I said something to the effect of “yes they’re freckles but it’s very rude to make comments like that!” I got out of there as quickly as possible, while getting a death glare from the owner of the freckles.
I was so shaken by this, that I really didn’t make it the learning opportunity that I should have. Not long after that, she saw a young lady with hot pink hair and piercings at Best Buy. Yep, of course she said “Hey! She has pink hair!” Pink has always been her favorite color, so I just said “Ooh isn’t that pretty?!” Thank goodness, the young lady just grinned and continued shopping. About a year later, my husband got a taste of it when he took her to his office Christmas party. There was a gentleman in another department who was a little person. I wasn’t there to hear exactly what was said, but I guess she thought he was another kid she could play with, said something about him being a kid, and hubby was the recipient of a death glare this time!
Since then, we’ve talked a lot about how it’s rude to make comments about people’s appearances. I was so “lucky” to receive a large, rather ethnic nose in the genetic lottery, and it’s a sore subject for me. My daughter has made remarks about my beak, and how my teeth are “yellow” and not “white like [hers].” It was hard for her to understand why that was hurtful, since she was just making a comment, not trying to be mean. I finally got her to grasp that it is never a good idea to comment on any aspect of someone’s appearance.
We’ve taught our daughter that all of our differences are what make us unique and special. People have all different hair, eye and skin colors. Some are short or tall; big or small. Some are in a wheelchair or are missing limbs. We all have different likes, dislikes and talents. It would be so boring if we were all exactly the same! We tell her that it’s OK to ask questions, but you should ask only Mom or Dad, and not within earshot of the person. I know some people would be fine with a child asking them how they lost their arm (rather than whispering and staring) but others would be angry and offended, so it’s best not to risk it in my opinion!
I think I’ve done a pretty decent job with this. My OB(s) when I had my son were all African American. My daughter never questioned their skin color, but she was highly concerned about how my pregnant OB would get her own baby out! Though my daughter’s school is mostly Caucasian, about 25% of her 24 child Kindergarten class is not, and her class is just one of 5. She has never noticed or mentioned the differences; she truly seems to view skin color the same as hair color (which is super easy to understand since I am a brunette and she is a blonde!)
My biggest concern when she went off to Kindergarten was that she was now going to be influenced by all sorts of people, and would no longer be my innocent baby. The first time a little girl was mean to her, I wanted to go tell her (and her mother!) what I thought, but I refrained. I’ve adjusted OK, but I was totally taken aback when she came home and asked me, “Mommy, are we American or whites?”
Naturally, my eyes bugged out a little bit and I said “What?? Who said that to you??” After some questioning, I determined that when they were learning about segregation, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. during Black History month, this is how the teacher (another K teacher, not hers) explained it. African Americans and “whites.” I guess only the “Americans” part sunk in, since she had heard that before! This was really tough for me, since at the age of 5 or 6, it’s so hard for kids to understand and “whites” is not a term I would use, or would expect her to hear. It seems she gathered that these two groups of people couldn’t play together, and one had to sit on the back of the bus, but she didn’t understand that it related to skin color, since we have never referred to race specifically.
I explained that the separation was based on skin color (boy did she look puzzled!) and the teacher meant African American. I probably confused her even more because I talked in circles a little bit about how often African Americans will have darker skin, but they can have lighter skin, or anywhere in between. Sometimes a Mommy has light skin and the Daddy has dark skin, and the kids can took like either, or a combination of both. Not only that, but not all people with darker skin are African American. I concluded by telling her that it simply doesn’t matter what is on the outside, what’s on the inside counts. “Judge a man not by the color of his skin but the content of his character.” – Martin Luther King Jr. We talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream. I was a little worried that this newfound focus on skin color and race would have her looking at her classmates and wondering (or *gulp* asking them) what race they were, but it hasn’t come up again since this conversation.
I wanted to talk more with her about how we can’t judge people based on their appearance. Many of my own ancestors have only been in this country for about the past century. When they came from Italy and Portugal to New Jersey (I know, how stereotypical, ha ha!) they didn’t speak a lot of English, and still had a lot of their own culture. My Mom and Aunt will talk about memories of their Italian Grandmother, who spoke in a mix of broken English and Italian. They always use her funny way of talking when they tell stories; “You-ah eat-ah. Mange! Mange!”
There is a fairly large Hispanic community not far from us, and it’s not at all uncommon to hear accents or Spanish when you’re out and about. When a cashier spoke with an accent, my daughter whispered to me asking if she spoke Spanish. I told her that she probably did, and that lots of people speak English as their second language, and prefer to speak another at home. There are people who look just like us, who haven’t been in this country long and/or have different customs, traditions, celebrate different holidays etc. There might be someone who looks totally different than her whose family came to the U.S. 100 years ago, and aren’t much different than us.
I worry about the world ruining my daughter’s fantastic perspective on diversity. On one hand, I want to protect her, but at the same time, we have to learn from our history. At some point, she is going to learn about slavery and the holocaust, and I am going to have to try to explain it to her. I have no idea how I’m going to do that, when it’s so difficult for adults to wrap their minds around. I know I have time to decide when she’s ready and introduce her to it, but I’m also at the mercy of the school system. They have certain curriculum they have to teach, and I don’t necessarily think it’s always age appropriate! I need to find out what will be taught when, so I can get a leg up.
So to all my fellow American (or Canadian!) parents, regardless of your skin color, race or ethnicity, how the heck do you handle teaching your kids about race?