I stared desperately out the window, willing myself to be strong as steel. I’d been listening to my baby scream and cry, cough and sputter for thirty minutes now. My sweet baby boy with the round trusting blue eyes and the lashes I would have gladly donated a body part to have. With his delicious smelling hair and pinchable thigh chubs, he was showing no signs of settling himself anytime soon.
And then I wondered, was this process that I’d been shamed into trying kind? If I didn’t go to him right now, would I forgive myself? Was I modeling kindness for my baby?
That memory is seared into every cell of my body. I ran into the room sobbing and picked my son up and never allowed myself to be shamed into parenting in a way that didn’t feel kind or genuine to me.
Luckily, I have few regrets as a mom. Not that I haven’t messed up plenty of things. Trust me. But my true regrets can all be summed up in one sentence. I regret what happened when I didn’t follow my maternal instincts. Likewise, my proudest parenting moments were when I made a split second decision based solely on instinct – not caring what anyone else thought.
As mothers, we’ve learned to follow the pull of our heartstrings when it comes to our kids. As a former civil rights attorney, I knew I wanted to raise children with a strong sense of right and wrong. This was pure instinct for me. But I needed a little help with how to raise kids who were kind to everyone and who actively fought for others to do the same.
I love Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, and each time I read it, I discover new things that I thought I knew, but that were just plain wrong! It’s been great for fashioning my strategies for teaching how to be kind to everyone.
Diversity Isn’t Just Black and White
I used to hear the word “diversity,” and think of it as referring to black and white: African-American and Caucasian. But, the more I read and the more people I meet, the more I realize diversity refers to so much more!
As I learn about diversity and teach it to my children, I want to show that diversity is all inclusive of: ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, family structure, socio-economic status, skin color, age, physical abilities, learning styles, mental abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies.
So as I use some of the tips I’ll share with you here, I may talk about race for simplicity – but the ideas translate to disability, sexual orientation and any group of people different from the makeup of our own families.
It’s NEVER Too Early to Start Discussing Diversity
I used to think that I should wait until my children asked me questions. And even worse, I assumed that if I didn’t talk about it at all, my children would just “get it.” But researchers know that this doesn’t work! This teaches children that to discuss any type of difference is taboo.
Waiting to have tough conversations only makes them tougher to start. So I look for everyday activities to ask open-ended questions. For example, playing with Lego’s – I frequently ask is there a light skinned guy who could be the bad guy? What about a dark skinned guy as the hero? In Ninjago, why do you think all the Ninjas are male? (Ok, there’s Nya – but she’s the worst stereotype. Great fodder for discussions!)
Are there any superheroes in wheelchairs? I wonder why not? And while at first, the answer may seem “obvious,” hold your horses! I have a friend in a wheelchair who met her husband while she was SURFING. And she’s also been a member of a dance troupe and now has her own award-winning online comedy series and YouTube channel.
It’s easier than you might imagine finding everyday activities to jump-start a conversation. Kids learn lessons from real-life examples. So if you’re watching TV together, talk about why certain groups are often portrayed in stereotypical roles. If you watch any of the “oldies,” you’re sure to find plenty of stereotypes!
I always try to remember that there is no reason for me to be embarrassed if children ask me a question that feels uncomfortable. Children ask questions from a pure place of curiosity. Any judgment that’s attached to a question comes from us as adults.
A common question may be: “Mommy, why is that lady in a wheelchair?” Instead of shushing your child, which teaches her that her question in not something she is allowed to speak about, try a simple answer. “It looks like her legs make it hard for her to move around like you and your friends do. So her wheelchair helps her go places that she wants to go.” It’s simple, factual, and judgment free.
Differences Do Matter
I used to want to teach what my parents taught me – that we are all the same. Can you imagine how a person of color feels when they overhear a Caucasian parent say to their child “they’re just like us…color doesn’t matter.” I want my boys to understand that a person of color’s culture, color, and heritage matter very much to them and influence their behavior in the world.
There is nothing wrong with teaching children to acknowledge differences – children naturally do this anyway. The tougher part is teaching and showing them how to respond to those differences without judgment.
YES! That person looks different than we do! And isn’t that wonderful – because the world would be a very boring place indeed if everyone looked just like us! If everyone came from the same background, had the same culture and liked the same history, folktales, beliefs, music and food, I’d be bored.
Then, of course, it’s easy to talk about all of our similarities – the basic things that make us all human. That person has a family, a heart and blood, and feelings of joy and sadness – all the same as we do.
It’s Not Enough to Raise “Nice, Respectful” Children
I used to want to raise “nice, respectful” children. But now I know this isn’t enough. Children don’t naturally learn to value diversity. There is too much around us that teaches them otherwise.
We must ACTIVELY teach our children how to be kind to everyone and how to value everyone’s differences. It’s why I refuse to teach my children “racial tolerance.”
As with all things we teach our children, we must address and not ignore, negative behavior. Silence teaches your acceptance and simply instructing “Don’t say that” — is not enough. Try to find out what your child meant by the action or comment: “What made you say that about Darla?” Then, explain why their behavior was unacceptable.
Just as you should challenge your child’s actions if they indicate bias or prejudice, it’s important to praise him for behavior that shows respect and empathy for others. When you catch your child treating people kindly, let him or her know you noticed, and discuss why it’s a desirable behavior. (cite)
Teach Kids to Be Anti- Instead of Non-
Just as I want my children to stand up to bullies, I want my children to be actively against racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia, and other unkind practices. This quick video does a great job of explaining why it isn’t enough not to be racist. We need to strive to teach our children to be anti-racist.
Following My Maternal Instincts
So, like with sleep training my son (or more accurately NOT sleep training my son), I’ve learned to follow my instincts. I also know that sometimes I need help with the “how” of teaching the ideals and valules I want to teach. I hope one or more of these tips – that may be counterintuitive – make it easier for you to teach your values to your children!
Let me know what’s working for you!