Discrimination: It started with a boy in a park.

Months ago, I heard a story related to equity, stereotypes and prejudice. A middle school African American boy in a New England community loved to study insects. There were no outdoor spaces for him to view the park-variety of bugs. When he visited the park in the

more affluent part of town, he risked a lot. He was advised to not wear baggie pants or hoods, to only go in bright daylight, and preferably to not go at all.

I got to visit my own faulty mythology about equity, and about New England communities. I also got a little deeper look at the “privileged” sort-of middle class bubble in which I live. This insect-loving boy, who had the passion of a future entomologist, has stayed with me. 

I knew then that I had to write a blog about all of our kids and equity and prejudice. How do we, in our busy daily lives, support our children in discovering empathy? How do we support them in moving out of isolating identity bubbles? Why be concerned? What are proven actions that reduce prejudice in children?

Going back to the boy in the park, he is standing beside me and I am crying. Beside me too are the kids “from the other side of the tracks” that I learned to hierarchically rank and ignore as a child. I was never told to put them down. There were unconscious messages from peers and school procedures. In my own rampant insecurity, I would have done anything to “fit in”, including ignoring others.

And it gets even more pervasive. This past year has reminded me that isolating stereotypes, judgements and prejudice can flourish in one’s own backyard. The “you versus me” and “I’m right and you’re wrong” has become a frequent painful norm. 

Coming from the operating system of judgement, it’s natural to want others to join us. In a strange way, we seek love and community by the camaraderie of shared disdain. Is this what we want our children to absorb and imitate?

We all have value-based messages from home, school, peers, and media. These messages can help determine where we put our parks, grocery stores, and toxic dumps. The messages affect money to schools and teachers. They create institutional prejudice. They also keep us from understanding and communicating with others, and the growth that comes from diversity.

Children absorb messages, known as implicit bias, even as babies and toddlers. it’s natural to seek what is familiar to us. Unless introduced to new things, this is the way the brain works. As we see hierarchies, our children will too. From this will come their behaviors.

An absorbed “hierarchy” of values and stereotypes, even among the most tolerant, can sneak out in reactions and rule decisions. Be curious about what, as parents and teachers, we all have taken in, and what are the unconscious ways it appears, even in walking down the street. How does it impact our children?

The consequences of discrimination to individuals, families, and communities are HUGE. The United Nations Convention on Rights of Children clearly found that discrimination negatively impacts child development, motivation, self-worth, a sense of potentiality, and leads to depression. 

Fortunately there are a lot of solid generative ideas.

Continue to be curious, about ourselves, our conscious and unconscious messages to our children, our experience of our bubbles and fears. As human beings, none of us are immune to prejudice. Keep observing for the weak links. Be collaborative with schools, other parents, and community institutions, toward goals of increased equity, tolerance, and resilience.

Set an overall tone and expectation of respect, fairness, and inclusiveness. Model out loud use of moral reasoning. For example, after triggered by another person, verbally model and call upon self-responsibility and use of non-violent communication. 

Exercise and grow capacity to listen, be empathetic, and move off judgement. The more we grow this in ourselves, a life long job, and use empathy with our children, the more they too will use it too. Whether adults or children, it takes modeling, encouragement, and learning from mistakes and experience to increase empathy and listening. Encourage  curiosity and learning about other groups and religions to grow understanding. 

Help children develop individual identities and group identities from a non-competitive point of view. In age-wise ways, support them in learning cultural, historical and societal contexts, including the positive and negative history, of their group identity(ies). 

Model how to feel good about one’s identity without making the other person feel bad. In Teaching Tolerance, there’s an excellent Ven diagram of two overlapping circles showing “what makes us unique and what makes us the same”. Help them identify what they share with other groups. “Just like me this person has been loved and has loved. Just like me this person has known pain.“

Encourage cross friendships and contact. What local activities are there with people from different backgrounds working together with a common cause? This was one of the single most often repeated factors in the articles I read. 

In age-wise ways, help children understand the societal, psychological and historical contexts of prejudice. For younger children, an explanation such as, “This is something they must have heard or have happened to

them,” might be a start. I love using spices of different shades of peach, tan and brown with younger children to teach about enjoying all skin tones, and then we may talk about some people not understanding.  Older children can gain empathy from understanding and sharing impact of discrimination and overcoming discrimination in their own family history, or even in other groups. Check out the movie Hidden Figures.  

Help prepare children for possible discrimination, as the one being discriminated, as a bystander, or realizing that one is participating in discrimination. It takes awareness. Parts of our brains that can freeze us light up when faced with the unfamiliar. Nervousness, confusion and uncertainty in another can be mis-interpreted as dislike. Role play what it means to be a bystander. Walk them through various choices. (a blog unto itself). I saw Youtube video on what to do if there is discrimination. I realized that, even though I have taught kids about bystander behavior, I needed this video to help me move past my own flight/freeze/ fear brain reaction. 

Our conversations with each other and our children are important. They can be hard and messy. We get to be curious, build awareness, gain and share information, and begin to sort out feelings and choices. We can only do this in judgement-free listening and learning zones. It is only from here that we can plant seeds of empathy and understanding. We are all learning, and the conversation is just beginning.

Related:

Hawley, Willis| Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice:Essential Principals for Program Design

Killen, Melanie, et al| Promoting Equity, Tolerance, and Justice in Childhood

Shuttle, Jill| Four Ways Teachers Can Reduce Implicit Bias

The Morningside Center| Interrupting Oppressive Behavior

 

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