Parenting Tips: "Racism", Young Children, and Obama: Lessons Learned in Hawaii

Racism, Young Children, and Obama: Lessons Learned in HawaiiThere's been a lot of focus on Hawaii lately, since Barack Obama was raised here. It's been very exciting for our little outpost way out on the end of the country to see a native son go so far in the world. My own claim to fame was that, when I lived on Oahu, I attended the same school from which he graduated. When I went to college on the mainland, it was difficult to explain my sense of race, ethnicity, and diversity. In Hawaii, everyone is a minority. We co-exist in an intermarried hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities. Interestingly, being Caucasian has a slightly negative connotation; we're called "haole" here, meaning "outsider"; so much so that I grew up "passing" for being part-Japanese, even though there's not a drop of Asian blood in my woodpile. I aspired to be part-Japanese. I considered the other races of my friends...Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Korean, African-American...they were all "something". Part-Chinese. Part-Hawaiian. Part-something. Being a haole, in contrast, was not "something". It was.....boring. Nothing. So my view of racial and ethnic differences was formed in a place where variation and difference was exciting, challenging, and essential to the vibrant success of the community. The best of all worlds. If I may so humbly draw a parallel to the Senator's upbringing and my own, I am proud to say this is it.

Recently, a friend called to ask about his 5-year-old daughter. He was appalled that she had told her teacher that she doesn't like "brown-skinned people". This is from a family dedicated to acts of social justice, and fairness and equal opportunity for all. He was mystified (and mortified). Where did she come up with this hateful idea? And how could they turn around her thinking?

The issue of race is, of course, a hot-button topic that quickly raises all sorts of feelings, attitudes, and ideas. I'm going to make the assumption that people who read a site called BabyShrink are fairly progressively-minded, so I'm not aiming to convert anybody with racist leanings. I'm preaching to the choir on that account, folks, right? We're all hoping to raise kids with the ability to comfortably live in an ever-increasingly cosmopolitan world; kids who appreciate others (and themselves) for their unique individuality and differences, and who seek to learn from others with a different background or skin color -- not to negatively judge them. So instead of getting into a dissertation on race-relations, let's focus on the parenting issues involved.

Is it possible for a young child to be "racist"?

OK, that's my first question. For some answers, let's look at the developmental issues. We know that babies have an innate preference for faces that look like the faces they usually see. In other words, babies with fair-skinned parents and siblings prefer to look at strangers with fair skin. The same holds true no matter what the family's skin color. A reasonable explanation for this has to do with our innate drive to survive. Something in us, probably genetic, tells us "People who take care of me look like this.......Those people help me to survive, and I want to be part of that group. Therefore, I prefer people who look like those of my group." If that means a young child from a fair-skinned family prefers fair-skinned faces, is that child a racist? Of course not. That's just evolutionary protection aimed at keeping families and kin together, for the protection of the group. And it's hard-wired at a pre-verbal, pre-thinking stage.

How can I make sure my child does not develop racist ideas and attitudes?

Of course, there comes a point in the child's development where rational thinking then becomes possible. It's at that time that automatic, hard-wired assumptions can be challenged by thoughtful discussions and actions. That cognitive ability doesn't really kick in until about the age of 7. But even as early as 12-18 months, children start to imitate us, and soak in our examples by osmosis. So you can start early by modeling the behavior and attitudes you wish your child to have. As they get older, you can begin to talk about the issues more abstractly.

Live a life of diversity

So the bottom line here is that, as families, it's important to surround our kids with examples of diversity in day-to-day life, just as a matter of course. Even a very young child will take in the modeling you show when you interact in a comfortable, relaxed way with people who look different from those she's used to seeing. But don't start making abstract statements about race, color, religion or other topics of difference until a bit later. When she's in first grade or so, she'll begin to understand it when you start talking about differences. Esoteric, abstract concepts will bounce off a 5-year-old's mind. "We're all people inside, even though we look different on the outside", and "What makes you different is what makes you special" are all great things to say, but really can't be understood by a young child. So wait on the discussions until first grade or so. But make it a priority to appreciate differences of all kinds; different hair color, clothing styles, body types, differing physical abilities, all of it, and make a comfortable environment where the acceptance of differences is fostered and encouraged.

"How would you feel if someone said that about you?"

You can also start to talk about manners and feelings, and have your child look at it from an empathic point of view. "How would you feel if someone did not like you for the way you looked? How would you feel if someone said something mean about you, and they didn't even know you?" Talk about how others might feel for being negatively judged. Let them practice putting themselves in others' shoes. This will help them to consider the impact of their words on others.

So I don't think that my friend's child is becoming a little racist. Far from it; she's looking for differences where they do exist, but she doesn't yet have the analytic capacity to apply abstract concepts to those differences.

How do you handle differences, when it comes to your young children?

Parenting Tips: Help! Another Kid's Mom Upset My Kid

Help! Another Kid's Mom Upset My KidBoy, this election is sure making people crazy (me included). Everyone's all wound up about the outcome, and what it means for us. It's one of those times when major world events come into the awareness of young children. Usually, we shield them from the daily news and it's usual dose of murder, theft and intrigue. But huge, long-lasting events like war, hurricanes and contentious national elections creep into the consciousness of our children, and we need to help them understand these events -- in a developmentally appropriate way. It ain't easy.

My friend Brook has some experience in explaining the realities of hurricanes to her kids, since they live in Florida. But she was shocked when another parent went totally out of line and made a "religious/political" statement to her 6-year-old son. I guess what happened is a group of parents in the Playgroup were discussing politics. Then another parent told the kids, "We don't like Barack Obama, because he kills babies."

Umm...EXCUUUSE me?

Now, BabyShrink is not the forum for getting into the evil politics behind this kind of statement (but I sort of can't help myself). I CAN comment on how and why this kind of statement is developmentally inappropriate -- and dangerous -- to make to a young child.

First of all, a 6-year-old doesn't understand the religious/political agenda behind such a statement. He doesn't know that the parent was referring to abortion, or what abortion is. He couldn't possibly understand the complex scientific and political and religious arguments on either side. And he won't really begin to be able to START to grasp it until middle school. That's just developmental fact.

All he knows is that a man who might become president kills babies...at least that's what a grownup told him. And killing anything is bad...killing cute things like his baby sister is even worse. Scary, shocking and upsetting. Grownups, especially people in leadership roles, are supposed to be dependable, safe, and caring. Making a comment like that undercuts a child's very foundation; his ability to trust the adult world.

I know many of my readers are with me so far. But now you're asking, "How the heck do you RESPOND, in a situation like that? What do I tell my child, the next time some idiot adult says something like that?"

It's tempting to try to protect our kids -- especially the little ones -- from the harsh realities of life. The fact is that wars, hurricanes, idiot adults, and other terrible things happen. And we SHOULD protect them from these realities, at least until they have the cognitive capacity to begin to understand, and cope with them. But when we have no choice, we need to respond in a developmentally appropriate way, and only with as much information as your child seeks.

For instance, a toddler or preschooler is pretty clueless about the outside world, and when she does get a glimpse of it, she's likely to interpret it in a sort of storybook/fantasy way. She's familiar with the "good guys" and the "bad guys" from fairy tales, so stick with that analogy. Keep things simple, and limited to 1-2 short sentences. And end on an upbeat note, reminding her that she is fine, you are going to keep her safe, and everything will be OK.

But after kindergarten, kids start to become more tuned in to the outside world, and they can understand more about the difference between fantasy and reality. And with that understanding comes the realization that adults maybe aren't so perfect after all; adults can have failings, make mistakes, and do bad things.

So I advised Brook to explain to her son that the other parent said something mean and untrue, and that Barack Obama DOES NOT kill babies, or anyone, for that matter. And to explain why, as parents, they like him very much. And that perhaps the other family was not a family they would be spending much time with anymore, since "we like to spend time with people who make us feel good, not people who scare us."

Most importantly, we need to control our own reactions when things like that happen. Because our children take their cues on how to react directly from us. Wisely, Brook kept her cool in that situation (and deserves a gold star, at least!). If she had lost it, the impact on her son would have been far more negative. Because our kids don't care much about what OTHER parents do. They care about what WE do.

The good news is, a stupid comment like that is likely to be soon-forgotten by a 6-year-old, if it's handled well by his parents.

But I bet the composition of the Playgroup will be a little different, from now on!