This post first appeared on Tanu Shree Singh's blog Two boys and a mad mum.
Five years ago, one afternoon, while alighting form the school bus, the younger one had this horrified look on his face. He didn't wait for me to question, and dived right in.
'Did you know that Indians are shot the moment they land in Pakistan?'
'WHAT? Who the he.... Who told you that?'
'My friend. And he said his father told him. I am never ever going there.'
Cut to present, and after the abominable massacre in Peshawar, he came back with a crest fallen look on his face. 'Some kids were discussing the gory images they saw, Ma. They say it was in Pakistan and they didn't care.' All of 11 and they were already prejudiced.
That's a common occurrence once the kids start going to school. If it is not based on nationality, it could be a religion, colour of skin, economic condition, or simply whether or not one wears glasses--prejudice starts colouring their vision earlier than we'd expect it to.
Many a times, the boys have come back in tears because they were called four-eyed or nerds owing to the glasses. They constantly report of kids being nasty with others who stand out because of anything under the sun--from grades to the braces they have to wear. Childhood is an age of innocent cruelty. Spend a day at school and you'd hear the nastiest words being hurled at each other without really meaning to.
Children are not born prejudiced but they learn it all fairly quickly. In a recent study on how children learn about prejudice, Sonia Kang and Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto concluded that for a six-year-old one of the most powerful educational tools might be direct instruction. Scientists found that as children get closer to age of 10 years, they begin to rely more on their own experiences rather than what people tell them--but for youngsters, instruction trumps experience.
In other words, the six-and seven-year-olds take an adult's word at greater value than they do their own nasty experience. The results showed that young children's 'expectations about experiencing prejudice will be shaped by the beliefs that are communicated to them by adults.' Kang says, 'the expectations that are established in early childhood are likely to form the building blocks for beliefs about stigmatization later in life.'
So when you tell your child that he should stay away from the maid's son since he is a 'bad boy,' you are preparing him for a lifetime of contempt towards people who are economically challenged. When, at a restaurant or a mall, you giggle on seeing an obese man and point him out to the kids, you are creating another monster in the head about body image, and telling them that being fat is funny. The next thing you know, they have nicknames for the fat kid in the class.
Do we really want our children to grow up wearing blinkers, with a very narrow vision of the world where they are quick to put people into these small boxes based on the biased belief systems they have grown up with? Absolutely not. However, it would be foolish to expect them to grow up without being plagued by any prejudice, or without forming redundant stereotypes. Even if they get a healthy, positive environment at home, unfortunately, we live in a society that continues to discriminate against others on the basis of their skin colour, membership to particular religious, or caste group, and hence, nurtures prejudice in every new generation.
In the increasingly diverse environment today, where boundaries are more of lines on paper, and our workplace sees us sharing space with people from different ethnicities, viewpoints, races, and myriad of other such differentiating characteristics, it has become even more pertinent that children learn to respect diversity rather than close themselves to it. So is there anything we can do? Based on the different studies put forth, and experience as a mother of two opinionated children, I have found some things do work:
1. Talk,Talk, and some more Talk.
When my three-year-old came back from school one day, and asked if his classmate was weird since his skin was much darker than his, we talked. When my elder one came back and said, 'I think girls are weak.'--oh, did we talk! There is a difference between talking to and talking down to--the idea is not to tell them that they are wrong but to help them arrive at that conclusion. Give them facts that are contrary to the bias popping in their head. So, my younger one and I sat and discussed about people with different skin colours who excelled in their fields. His conclusion-- 'I could be the colour of a rainbow and it wouldn't matter.' As for the elder one, I resisted smacking the back of his head for calling the super-species weak, and yes we talked instead.
2. Set an example.
I know, that is a lot to live up to, but this is the extra baggage we have to live with. You want them to emulate something, set an example. At one hand we, the pious souls, teach them that every human being is an equal despite their profession and, on the other hand, a trip to a restaurant with the maid sees her sitting on a separate table, in a corner far from ours. Although our example alone doesn't suffice, it is crucial during the critical age of around five to eight years, as pointed out by Kang. They will absorb everything the adults say or do. Last month the younger one asked, 'Mum, do we have separate utensils for our helpers?'
'No. Why do you ask?'
'You know some kids in my class told me that they have separate stuff for the helpers. I find that very weird. How are they different from us? I think it is rude.'
My nod and a smile reassured him. That is a miniscule victory but a triumph nevertheless.
3. Understand where the question is coming from.
Knowing the antecedents of a particular query can help in making them understand the basis of the prejudice, and also in countering it. If something happened at school, then first get the details of the incident, and then discuss. Addressing the larger issue without going into details of the causatives, might make little sense to them. Talking in context helps.
4. Pause and think.
It is okay to tell them that you do not know the answer and need time to think rather than say something, which unwittingly reflects your own bias. Sometimes, the questions they throw at us force us to face our own negative biases. At that point, it is a good idea to pause and reflect--Am I right to hold that view? Do I want to transmit it to my children or would I want them to form their own opinions? When in doubt, talk to others or read before you tackle the issue in question with the child.
5. There will be hard questions. Be prepared.
Prejudice is not limited to race, religion or appearance. More uncomfortable issues like sexual orientation may sneak up, and hit you in the face when you are least prepared. Again, educate yourself. We have far too many people with coloured vision out there and, we can definitely do without more. So, before forming an opinion based on popular media or a stray statement by a friend, read extensively and open your mind.
6. Literature to the rescue!
What can I say--I am kind of biased towards books! On a serious note, there are a million books out there, which effectively teach children to respect diversity and form informed opinions. Let them read various religious texts, ethnic histories, and a wide variety of fiction. At the last World Book Fair, we picked books on stories from Quran that have been read, and thoroughly discussed much to the disapproval of a few people I used to know.
7. Encourage them to mix
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, encourage them to interact and make friends with other children from varied backgrounds. The park that the boys go to in the evening sees a mix of kids coming to play. Initially, the group that they played with had reservations about the guard's son playing with them. Eventually, the boys convinced the others that he was a good bowler, and hence integral to the team. Score!
8. Never lose heart
Despite your saying the right things and doing the right stuff, there still would come a time when you are left speechless, and wondering where the negativity is stemming from. Don't lose heart and never question your parenting skills. Deal with the situation independently, without letting it reflect on your skills and the child's goodness. The world out there is not necessarily as sensitive, and children absorb all sorts of things from it. As long as we try to undo the damages, we are good.
As they grow older and form their own ideas, this list will change, but it will always be there. A prejudice free society is a thing of fables, but a positive outlook and compassion is definitely achievable. We always have a choice--do we want our kids to grow in an environment fraught with uncertainty and hatred, or do we want them to grab that faint glimmer of positivity and hang on to it? We have seen what negative biases can do to us; it is time to give the other side a fair chance.