As much as you have been trying to model appropriate behavior and attitudes, your child just might blurt out something very prejudiced. Oh dear.
Whether it’s racist, sexist, classist, or some other “ist,” hearing your child say something prejudiced can be more than a little disconcerting. When your child says something so out of line with your family’s values, it’s just plain shocking! Where did this idea come from? What do I do?
It can be difficult to control your reaction, but it matters. Getting angry, punishing your child, or dismissing the comment with a, “You don’t mean that,” closes the door to a productive conversation. As embarrassed as you might be about the comment – especially if you are in a public situation – you need to acknowledge the comment before you can get to the bottom of why your child made it. “I’m not so sure about that. Let’s talk about why you think that,” can get you through the uncomfortable moment until the deeper conversation can begin.
Prejudice is a learned behavior. Kids aren’t born hating one another for their differences. There’s a quote from comedian Denis Leary circling the internet that goes, “Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a 2-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.”
Ann Morgan James, mother and author of How to Raise a Millionaire, concurs and adds, “Whether it is at home, at school, with extended family, prejudice is a choice. Just like acting with integrity is a choice.” The good news is that if bias can be learned, it also means it can be unlearned. As a parent, you are the greatest influence on your children. It’s time to use it.
As far as what, exactly, to say to your child depends on your child, the situation, and your family’s values. Ask questions about your child’s feelings and thoughts – then ask some more questions. Consider where your child might have heard such a sentiment, that your child might be expressing fear of difference and you can offer reassurance, or any number of scenarios. Be open to any direction the conversation might take – and be able to steer it back to reiterating family values of acceptance and openness.
No matter what the situation, when your child says something prejudiced, you have an opportunity to not only talk about the comment and the foundations of it, but also to think about and verify that your own behaviors support your words. Talk the talk and walk the walk every day as a role model for openness and acceptance for your child. While it’s no guarantee your child won’t communicate prejudiced opinions, it will help you keep the lines of communication open so you can address them with your child constructively if they do occur.
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