Children will listen

One thing I’ve learned in this whole parenting gig is that kids absorb more than we think they do.  They are great imbibers of our own attitudes: what we say and do, and what we don’t say and don’t do.   And, on this day dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve been thinking about how all of this relates to my own kids, and to me, and to the issue of race.

To put it another way, here’s a question I’ve been pondering lately: What are my kids learning from me about people who look different from us?

Most schools — my son’s included — honor Dr. King with assemblies, or lesson plans, or art projects.  I’m glad that they do, but that’s only a part of raising kids who are inclusive of others.  I know from my life as a teacher that not a few people find in-class diversity awareness curriculum to be forced or inauthentic (this is perhaps a more common reaction in high school settings than in elementary school settings).  My answer to that is that it will feel forced and inauthentic if we adults don’t actually live it ourselves.  Do we as teachers and parents truly believe in the dignity and worth of all people?  If so, how do our students and children know that we do?

This is an important issue for me, for a few reasons.  On the one hand, it’s practical; in a global society like ours, being respectful of people from different cultures and backgrounds is an increasingly important skill to have . But on a much deeper level, it’s spiritual.  My faith teaches me that all people have dignity and that every life is precious; it’s one of the earliest lessons I learned as a child.  My faith is also a universal faith — “catholic” literally means “universal” — and when I go to Mass, especially here in diverse California, there are people of every skin color imaginable in the pews.  It’s a weekly affirmation of something I truly believe: that the body of Christ is made up of every color imaginable.  We are all part of it and when one of us is missing the rest of us are diminished.  That’s something I want my children to understand, too — sooner rather than later.

A few years ago, I came upon this quotation, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  “At the heart of racism is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some people into being,” said the sociologist Frederick Hertz.  It makes you think, doesn’t it?  If someone were to ask your child, “Which groups of people do your parents think are God’s mistakes?”, how would your child answer?  It is a good question to ask ourselves.

I’m hardly a perfect parent when it comes to teaching my kids to appreciate diversity (or, honestly, when it comes to anything else).  But I do care about it.  I want my children to grow up seeing every person as having an innate human dignity.   And it does my heart good to see the playground at my son’s school, which is full of students who are not just white but Asian, Latino,  African-American; there are students who are Pacific Islanders and those whose parents came from India and those with parents of two different races (or more than two).  It’s a little microcosm of the world, and I like that.

And I am letting Matthew know that I like it.  “Isn’t it great that God created people in so many different colors?” I said recently.  “It would be so boring if we all looked the same.”

It’s one little step, but it’s a step all the same.  And children do listen.


P.S.: For a fascinating look at how kids absorb lessons about race, check out the book Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  There is a  chapter called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.”  Worth a read.

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