Raising a Child Who Respects Difference

Resolve To Challenge Intolerance

Okay, I hung out my dirty laundry. What's yours? We will all face our children seeing -- or showing -- prejudice at some point. When that happens, staying quiet is the worst thing you can do. "Silence indicates acceptance, and a simple command of 'Don't say that' is not enough," counsel the authors of Beyond the Golden Rule. Drum up some more Big Talks. Dig down to find out why your child said or did an intolerant thing. Then you need to explain why the action is unacceptable.

In our case, my husband and I first stressed that the N-word is never, under any circumstance, ever, ever, ever acceptable. Then we explained, trying to stay age-appropriate, the history of the word. Next, I walked Will through the tremendously moving and troubling photographs -- the marches, the lunch-counter sit-ins, the fire hoses sprayed on crowds -- in my copy of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. Finally, we told our son we were proud that he didn't say it out loud -- because you give praise when you can.

To get my thoughts together beforehand, I did what most of us do when feeling inept on a topic: I went to the Internet (actually Googled "explaining the N-word to kids"). Eventually, I landed at a Website for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. A quote from their "Our Values" section rang in my soul:

"Some people claim that race relations are worsened by discussing them. We disagree. Rather, we agree with the Reverend Martin Luther King's assertion that "time is neutral." Social problems cannot solve themselves. We confront racism -- publicly, continually, and relentlessly."

Relentlessly, then. That's our job. Whether we explain why Sonia Sotomayor or Harvey Milk matters or whether we turn down a request to wear a Cleveland Indians baseball cap because the Chief Wahoo mascot is offensive and here's why (that last one's my latest challenge). I'm not saying teaching tolerance is easy. I'm saying it's a privilege to attempt the job in this remarkable time in our nation's history. "Ah, the Obama influence," says Brooks with a smile in her voice. "It opens up so many possibilities for conversation."

Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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