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What Are We Teaching the Children?
Mary Laeger-Hagemeister

Our son, now age 23, was five when he announced that his new playmate Brian had a lot of melanin in his skin.  Dan knew this because we had a book that answered questions such as “Why do some people have darker skin than others?” and “Why do some people have freckles?”  Quite simply, it’s based on the amount of melanin in our skin – even for those with freckles who have more melanin in certain spots.  It’s not actually our race that makes us different as much as our cultural heritage.

What would happen if parents and other caring adults taught children to understand and respect difference rather than hate difference?  The FBI recently reported that half of the 7,649 hate crimes reported to them in 2004 were based on racial prejudice. Hate crimes against black Americans were most prevalent.  It was also reported that race-based incidents rose by 5 percent last year.  Hate crimes have been based on race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity. 

Again, what would happen if parents and other adults set an example of seeking first to understand difference and modeling that to children rather than expounding on hate and violence based on someone’s skin, ethnic identity, sexual orientation or religion?  We know that children are not born bigots – bigotry is learned.  So, if bigotry is learned then so is respect and tolerance.  There are plenty of opportunities to teach acceptance and provide peaceful resolution for difference.  An excellent on-line resource for parents, teachers, kids and teens is teachingtolerance.org.  It provides ideas, activities, book suggestions, classroom curriculum and interactive options to stimulate conversation and thought.  There’s even a quiz that provides insight into one’s own personal biases.

All of us need to remember that tolerance and acceptance is an ongoing process that is not captured in a single moment. There needs to be a comfort level established so that social issues around difference can be discussed.  Pointing out stereotypes and cultural misinformation that is depicted in the media, computer games, movies, etc. also helps to challenge bias.  Get kids ideas of what they think about bias and how it would feel to have someone have bias toward them based on their skin, gender, religion, etc.

As kids get into the tweens and teens, group identity is critical.  There are three things of which to remind them. First, pride in one’s own group does not mandate disrespect for others.  Second, no group is entitled to special privileges. Third, we should avoid putting other groups down as a way to elevate the status of our own groups.

Read books with multicultural and tolerance themes to your children.  What kind of cultural diversity is reflected in your home’s artwork, music and literature?  Add something new and give multicultural dolls, toys or games as gifts. 

And remember, that it is important not to tell children that we are all the same; we’re not.  We experience the world in difference ways, and those experiences matter.  What is important is that we help children understand the viewpoint of others and always remember that as adults we are serving as role models to children in how we treat others.  At the end of the day, how would you answer, “What have I taught the children today?”

Mary Laeger-Hagemeister is a member of Paths to Peace in Freeborn County .  For more information about Paths to Peace, visit their website at http://www.freebornpeace.org  or email your questions to info@freebornpeace.org