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.