Overcoming prejudice

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is in middle school and comes home with stories about witnessing discrimination and hearing bigoted comments from other students. How can we keep him from picking up these attitudes himself?

A: Now that the United States has just inaugurated our first African-American President (no, David and Wayne Palmer on the TV show “24” don’t count), it’s tempting to think that we’ve moved beyond prejudice. If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, the progress we make as a society doesn’t always reflect what’s going on in the hearts and minds of individuals. Prejudice—in all sorts of forms—is still all around us.

It starts young. Children are aware of gender, names, and a few other differences long before they’re three, and they start absorbing their parents’ attitudes even earlier. By six they’re very conscious of weight, skin color, athletic and academic abilities, glasses, wardrobe, religion, culture, and just about anything else that makes people different. Of course, being aware of differences isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s perfectly normal. It’s only a problem when people use those differences as weapons, to divide people into “us” and “them,” “good” and “bad.”
Fortunately there’s a lot you can do to steer your kinds in the right direction.

  • Teach them to value diversity. I know, that sounds painfully politically correct, but social science research has repeatedly shown that diversity strengthens organizations and societies. Too much sameness leads to stagnating ideas, diminished creativity, and weakens the group overall. Ask your kids (or yourself, for that matter), how they’d like it if everybody was the same, all music sounded the same, all food tasted the same. It shouldn’t take long for them to agree that diversity really is the spice of life and ought to be encouraged.
  • Give them fish-out-of-water experiences. This is especially important if they spend most of their time around people who look, talk, and act like them. Visit a cultural festival, an ethnic neighborhood, or house of worship from another religion. Afterwards, spend some time talking about the differences.
  • Talk about how to respond. The upside (if you want to call it that) of experiencing or witnessing discrimination is that it gives us a little insight that we can make use of later on. Without forcing any conclusions, ask your child what he might do when he hears a prejudicial remark directed at someone. What might he say to the person who made the remark—or to the victim? How might he feel if he said nothing? How he would feel if he were the victim and no one said or did anything to help him. And, of course, when should he report the incident to an adult?
  • Find out what programs are in place at your child’s school to recognize diversity, challenge bigotry, and emphasize cooperation. Do learning and problem-solving tasks emphasize cooperation and team play or focus on excessive competition? Does the school have a curriculum that covers different races, religions, and cultures? Does the school take advantage of ethnic holidays (like Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and Rosh HaShana) so kids can explore unfamiliar customs and traditions? Do teachers have open discussions in class about discrimination and negative feelings toward others? If an incident involving prejudice has occurred at school, is it used as an opportunity to discuss these issues in a way that emphasizes what we all have in common?

Sadly, there’s no way to completely eradicate prejudice. The trick is to teach our kids to respond positively and effectively when they encounter it.

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