I grew up in a small town that had no black people-not even one. That was a good thing, in a way, since I never met anyone of a different race until I grew up. That meant that I was not preconditioned by the adults around me to act one way or another toward people who were different than me.
But skin color is only one of the ways in which people show prejudice toward others.
Madeline, a friend of mine at school told me one day that she couldn’t come to my house to play, because her mother said she didn’t want her hanging out with people from my side of the tracks. I was stunned. I didn’t see anything wrong with my side of the tracks. Admittedly, my family was not financially as well off as her’s was, but we did have a halfway decent yard, and wore clothes that didn’t look much different than her clothes did.
The friendship with Madeline cooled a bit, and after a while, I began to realize that things like what her father did for a living ranked much higher on the social scale than the millwork my father did. The kids in my family didn’t take piano lessons, but she and her brother did. When one of our family members became ill, we used good old Dr. Tritt, a “way past retirement age” doctor who was paid to take care of all the Eagle’s lodge family members. The care we received was pretty much the bare essentials, but we didn’t realize it at the time. Madeline’s family always got their medical treatment at the new doctor’s clinic that had been built next to the hospital.
As I grew older, I noticed other forms of prejudice besides economic and color. If you didn’t support the popular candidate in a political race, you were often given the cold shoulder, and, if you just happened to be one of those “Pentecostal” believers, you could have earned a doctorate at some high class university, but were still considered not quite all there by many of your acquaintances.
There really is no end to the situations where you may confront prejudice, and trying to do anything to stop it in others is pretty useless, but you can do some things to stop it in your own behavior and in the behavior of your children and here’s how.
1. From the very beginning, set an example for your children.
Our children look to us for their ideas and form their opinions based on the opinions they see us express.
If you tell your children they shouldn’t look down on someone because of where they live, and then make a snide comment about how the family down the street is ruining the looks of the neighborhood because they don’t take care of their yard, you are setting the wrong example for your children.
Instead, find reasons why a quick judgment may be wrong and share those ideas with your kids. Ask them why they think the other child lives in the kind of place they live in? Maybe they don’t have enough money to move to a nicer area, or perhaps their parents have to work long hours and don’t have time to do yard work. In other words, encourage your children to think about a situation before they judge it-especially when they have no evidence to base their feelings on.
If your child doesn’t want to play with another one because the other child doesn’t want to share, or uses bad language, or bullies your child, make an attempt to help your child and his friend overcome the problem instead of just deciding the two shouldn’t associate
with each other.
2. Teach your children that prejudice comes in many forms and that you don’t expect them to practice it in their own lives.
Differences in race, religion, sexual orientation, financial status, political affiliation, educational status, living arrangements, physical handicaps, language, and even family size have all led to prejudicial behavior on the part of many people.
When you see examples of any of these types of behavior, point them out to your children. Only when they are able to recognize prejudice in all its forms will they be able to eliminate it from their own behavior and lives.
3. Discuss prejudice and the consequences of prejudice with your children.
Don’t avoid the subject of prejudice with your children and assume, like mine did, that since there were no black people in town, the subject was moot.
Use articles from the newspaper to show them how a quick, unjust judgment caused someone to be injured or socially ostracized. Ask how they would feel in the same situation.
Encourage them to talk about children they know who are “different.” Check to see how your child feels about that difference. If the difference bothers them, ask them why. Ask them if the other person could help the difference and, if not, why it would be wrong for us to judge them for something the other person has no control over.
If they are older, discuss cases like the Sheppard case with them and the mother who helped her daughter bully a classmate of her daughter online until the classmate committed suicide.
4. Introduce your children to literary or Biblical references that will teach them to avoid prejudice.
One of my favorites is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Another might be, “Man looketh on the outside, but God looketh upon the heart.” The story of The Ugly Duckling can help younger children learn that we should not judge others by how they look.
If you are creative, let your children create finger puppets and act out a story written by them or by you, showing how to avoid prejudice and how to handle instances of prejudice they see in others.
As a family study other cultures; watch movies about other countries and people with different belief systems. Stress to your children that everyone has a right to his or her own ideas.
5. Finally, teach your children that if they treat other people well, other people will usually treat them well in return.
Of course there are exceptions, and we need to prepare our children for that hard truth. They need to know that what others think of them is not the measure of their worth. If they know they have behaved well toward another person, and the other person responds poorly, that is a reflection on the other person, not on them.
My mother often said that she always assumed the best about everyone until they proved her wrong. I think, perhaps, that might be a good motto for each of us to adopt for ourselves and to teach our children as well.