Raising Equal Opportunity Kids

This post was inspired by Ipomoea’s “Raising a Feminist Son” post on Friday.  After I left a comment I started thinking “Oh, but that only works if…”  and  “But that’s for older kids, when they’re younger…” and so on.  Instead of spending the rest of the night adding comments every time I thought of something new, I decided to organize my thoughts and just do it all at once.

I had a really hard time finding the right word to describe “non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic and religiously tolerant.”  I, personally, don’t like “tolerant” as a descriptor because it implies that one is putting up with something unpleasant.  I finally settled on “egalitarian” because, according to Wikipedia, “Egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth,” and that’s the attitude I want my children to have.  I like “equal opportunity” as well, based on this definition: Absence of discrimination… based on race, color, age, gender, national origin, religion, or mental or physical disability.  Throw in “sexual preference” and we’ve covered the bases pretty well.

As with any developmental process, the things your children absorb will change as they get older, but home life is where they get the most information regardless of age.  As HelloKitty said “live the example.”  If you create a respectful household, your children will understand on a fundamental level what is expected of them.  When I say “respectful household” I don’t mean a fifties-sitcom-everyone-is-polite-all-the-time type of thing.  My kids hear us tease and gripe at each other, sometimes they even hear us fight.  However, they understand that Mom and Dad are partners.  We respect each other’s opinions and when we disagree, we work to find a solution everyone can live with.  The way we do this is we talk about things.  If I see something that offends me, I tell Mister about it when he gets home.  We ask for each other’s opinion about stuff.  If he says something rude, I call him on it and vice versa.  We’re not perfect, sometimes everyone is having a pissy day and we can’t manage to connect, but we do out best.

The children also need to be a part of the ‘circle of respect’ so that they grow up understanding that respect should be a two-way street.  If I ask them to do something that is outside the scope of their normal chores I say “please” and “thank you.”  If they show a marked improvement in school or behavior we say “good job” and acknowledge the effort they put into the change.  If they are consistently good at something, like school or behavior, we say “good job” and acknowledge the effort (that’s one that is easy to forget).  If I lose my temper and say something that I later realize was out of line, I will apologize to my children.  This is an area that can be tricky.  You don’t want to apologize for a punishment or for getting upset by bad behavior, it sends mixed messages to your kids.  If, however, you say something hurtful, just for the sake of being hurtful because you are royally pissed off, I believe that deserves an apology.  Just be very clear about what you are apologizing for and why.

When your children start socializing away from you, at day care, pre-school or kindergarten, they are open to a whole new sphere of influence.  Chances are, the attitudes you have been teaching them at home will carry through to school.  The trick is to listen to what they say about school and not to overreact.  Young kids aren’t stupid, but they are fairly simple.  You have to take their questions and statements at face value.  The example my old sociology professor used to use was a little girl learning the facts of life from her overly enlightened parents.  The five-year-old asks her parents where babies come from.  The parents launch into a full-on detailed explanation of the miracle of life and childbirth.  When the little girl is asked later about how babies are made, she says “Well, first you go out and buy a duck…”  When a little kid asks where babies come from the answer they are looking for is “They grow in their Mommy’s belly” or something along those lines.  You don’t hide things from them, you give simple answers to simple questions that they will understand.  If they have more questions, they will ask them.  The same holds true for Pre-K race relations.  The simplest way to ensure that your kid will treat all the other kids the same is to assume that they will.  I firmly believe that this is one time when it doesn’t pay to be preemptive.  If you make a point of reminding your child that they have to treat everyone the same, no matter what they look like, it will actually introduce the idea of treating someone differently based on color into their mind.  It can be hard; you want your kid to have the best, most harmonious circle of friends in the world, but you just have to let go and trust your kid’s judgement.  The politics of preschool friendships are fascinating.  “Because he knows my name,” is a perfectly acceptable reason to be friends with someone.  Allegiances are won and lost over who gets to slide privileges and who gets to be first in line at snack time.  My daughter had a thing about circle time.  She took it very seriously and if anyone acted up during circle time, they forfeited their right to a goodbye hug.  As long as that is the type of criteria your child is using to define friendship, don’t worry too much about who they choose to call friend.  It can seem strange to us, but it’s totally normal for that age.  Also be aware that simple statements are not cause for alarm.  My daughter saying “Aylah is brown like Divya” carries the same weight as “Samantha’s hair is long, but mine is short.”  Simple observations like that are just a sign that she is paying more attention to the world around her, there is no implied judgement attached.  All that’s required from you is some version of “Well, how cool is that?” (That’s one of her favorite phrases :) )

Grade school was pretty easy for us.  This is the age when kids understand how they should treat people and peer pressure isn’t too much of a problem.  You probably won’t need much more than “spot treatments” –  e.g. your kids repeat something they hear at school and you explain why that is not a nice thing to say.  This is the age (6 and up) when you might want to start having “Plan B” talks if necessary.  That’s when you leave a family gathering and have a little chat about how Uncle Dave says a lot of things that we know aren’t nice, we still like him because he’s family, but his attitudes are outdated and wrong.  I have also done this indirectly.  Sometimes your kids pay more attention if they don’t feel like you are lecturing them.  I am not above starting an unnecessary conversation with my husband in the car so that my kids can “accidentally” overhear my opinions.

The teen years are when you can actually discuss feminism or racism or whatever -ism that creeps up and your kids might actually contribute to the conversation.  In a lot of ways, you have to trust in the lessons you have been teaching them and let it go.  I know my kids say things that I wouldn’t like when I’m not around, but the important thing is that they know I wouldn’t like it.  It’s a type of rebellion/exploration/socialization to be a jackass in high school.  Not every kid does it, but many do.  Like I said, the important thing is that they understand on some level that they are being offensive.  If they do, then the offensiveness will peter out like any phase.  It usually ends when another teenager, who isn’t going through a jackass phase, calls them on their language.  If they do slip up in your presence, use your judgement in how strongly you react.  If my kids were to use language that is universally accepted as hate language, they know I would come down on them like a ton of bricks.  If it is language that is pretty widely used, like “retarded,” I talk first.  If all their friends are saying something, they probably haven’t thought about the fact that it’s offensive.  Explain that it is, that just because a lot of people say something that doesn’t make it polite.  They might change their language, they might not, but they will stop at home and a part of them will understand that some people find the term offensive.  If you have been living the example, and continue to do so, they will probably decide to be upright citizens on their own.

I can’t make any guarantees.  Every kid has their own personality, and you can’t control everything that happens to them, but this is what works for us.

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at if you're interested in checking it out.

12 replies on “Raising Equal Opportunity Kids”

Addendum to what I wrote earlier: As far as race relations and children go, I do wonder what I should tell her when we really do start talking about race and racism. The thing is, it’s so tempting so say, “Race doesn’t matter, honey–everyone is the same, no matter what skin color they have.”

But that’s not true, and I’ll bet a million dollars that an African American or Iraqi American parent wouldn’t tell their child that. White privilege is what lets parents like me think that: Race *does* matter, and even though you should treat everyone the same, our society doesn’t, and plenty of individual people don’t either.

I want to make my kids aware of their white privilege and teach them about institutionalized racism, but it’s so scary–I hate to dwell on such painful issues, especially when they’re young, but it won’t be long before they are aware of the fact that the poor, black kids in their class may be treated differently then they are by teachers and principals, just because of the side of town they live on.

It doesn’t help that I have almost no experience with this–we live in North Carolina, in a town that is basically 50% wealthy and white, and 50% poor and black. There’s almost no overlap. However, I’m from a town in southern California that is about 75% Mexican and Mexican American and 25% white, so my experiences are completely different then my kids’ will be.

Race does matter, it will always matter. Or rather culture and ethnicities matter. It shouldn’t be denied. It’s uncomfortable especially for parents because we’re projecting our own fears and anxieties onto our kids, through our adult lenses, using our personal experiences as models.

Let your kids lead the way. Educate yourself, unpack your backpack of privilege, so to speak, but keep tabs on what your kids are doing. If they say something then chat with them. Don’t overload them. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. Draw on friends and community for support.

Best stepping off point is to use your kids’ school curriculum. What are they reading? What are they learning–or not learning in school? Don’t overwhelm the kids, but choose moments. I used TV shows to carefully select “teaching moments”. Most of the time I swore my boys had me on Mom mute, but I know something sank in.

You can learn together with your kids. Don’t be afraid or overwhelmed. Talking about race is tricky. Move beyond the discomfort. You’ll be okay.

Excellent job, Sara B., for furthering the discussion from Ipo’s original post.

I did not live the example with #1 son, which is why I was not as successful with him. I was not authentic in my actions, too preoccupied performing roles from my life script. That’s what’s forgiving about kids after the firstborn: you get new chances, learn from your own errors. Yes, #2 is more open and is close to me, but it’s because he knows the real me and the person who is the real Mr. Kitty.

You are spot on, Sara, when you advise to keep it simple an direct with kids. I’ve been working myself into a frenzy about having THE TALK with #2 son (I’m on my own with this one, ugh), but really the anxiety is my own.

Even if your kids don’t agree with you–#1 and I mix like baking soda and vinegar, heh–you need to give them the freedom to express themselves. I hate his use of “retarded”, but if I jump on him every single time he just puts up defensive walls. No, I can’t be a true activist and loving mother simultaneously 24/7. I choose my battles. However I remain firm and consistent about my views. He needs me as his mother first. I believe that my son will have other life experiences once he’s left my house to see the error of his ways.

My mother was the active and vocal parent, but it’s my father who remains my model. I understood who he was as a person, understood his ethics. Yes we were of a “good fit”. My mother was better trained to be a parent, but she lacked a core sense of self-confidence and that insecurity leaked through, colored her parenting messages. I see the difference now that I am a middle-aged woman and mother.

One of the hardest things about being a parent is accepting that we did the best we could. The two hardest parts of writing this post were 1) Leaving in the part about saying hurtful things just because I was royally pissed off (I thought about taking it out about 20 times because it’s really hard to admit that I’ve done that, but it happens to the best of us and it’s worth acknowledging) and 2) I felt a little like a fraud because, in hindsight, I can organize things and make it sound like I had a plan, but in reality I was just winging it while trying desperately to remember pertinent information from sociology classes. I’ve definitely had days where my measure of success was “At least he’s not a criminal.”

From what you’ve said about #1 I think I would do the same things you are doing, while secretly hoping that he marries a woman who will kick his ass every now and then :)

My therapist says, “80/20” is the rule, what we aim for, that is 80% success and 20% no success.

#1 son will have to deal with his own karma if he doesn’t soon mend his ways.

I have a very difficult time with apologizing to the kids. Mr. Kitty is very Asian and never apologizes to them or me. My mother never apologized, but my dad did. It’s a bad part of our East Asian cultures.

I’m so glad you mentioned when preschoolers start noticing skin colors and commenting on them–and that it’s not a big deal. My 4-year-old recently came home from school and said, “Jane looks like me because her skin is white like mine! Alana does not look like me because her skin is brown!” As I panicked and started stuttering about loving everyone and white privilege and race relations in the South, my husband gently said, “That’s right, honey–everyone’s skin is different colors, just like everyone has different colored hair and eyes. Right?” “Yep!” she cried, and ran off to play.

It really struck me that all she was commenting on was the literal color of her friends’ skin, nothing more than that, and that making any more of it than that at this point would be way more than she needs to know. Next year, however, might be a different story.

Thank you all. I understand your concern Ipomoea. We live in The South and it never ceases to amaze me when people say awful things without thinking about it. It doesn’t happen often, I’m not really surrounded by racist rednecks all the time, but it’s definitely more often than when I lived in the northern states.

Thank you! I love hearing from parents who’ve thought about this and survived it. My brother and I would have never considered using -ist language, but for whatever reason, my brothers-in-law use it like punctuation, while Mr. Ipo never has. I know parents can only do so much to influence their kids, some people just never grow out of the high school jackass stage.

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