A few years ago, I was sitting in the doctor’s office waiting room for my daughter’s 3-year checkup. She was playing with two African-American sisters about her age on the little indoor playhouse and slide in the well-visit area.
t After 10 minutes or so, she stopped what she was doing, looked at me from across the room, and yelled, “Daddy? What’s the blacks’ names?” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scold her at first, but I quickly realized that her 3-year-old vocabulary simply wasn’t developed enough to navigate the situation. She should have asked “What are the girls’ names?” of course, but to her mind, the girls were black and she wanted to know their names. Little kids have a pretty uncomplicated outlook on things most of the time.
t Ultimately, I just chuckled and said, “Well, you’re going to have to ask the girls what their names are. I don’t know their names.” I gave the girls’ mom a “Kids. What are ya gonna do?” look with a smile, and she chuckled back, and that was that. It could’ve easily turned into a big thing, even though it was clear the mom wasn’t offended in the least. But kids are kids, and they really do say the darndest things.
t I was briefly tempted to tell the mom that our household is not one that refers to black people as “the blacks” any more than we sit around talking about “the Jews,” “the Mexicans” or “the gays.” There are more respectful ways to discuss other races and cultures, and besides, there aren’t too many occasions where I’d find it necessary to lump everyone from one specific culture into a group like we’re talking about the family next door. (“Did you see the new car the Blacks got? Maybe we can get a sports car too one day, when the kids are in college!”) But the whole scenario passed in a flash, and I stopped myself from over-explaining it.
t Later on, though, it did give me pause as I thought about not just the language we use around our kids, but the language they hear from other adults. We live in a very red state and I frequently come into contact with people who don’t have the most enlightened views on things (to put it mildly). My family is from the deep South, going back generations to very rural areas full of nothing but farms and livestock. As you might imagine, sometimes the words they use aren’t exactly words I’d like my kids to hear. That can be a tough road to navigate. There are, of course, certain words that would send up an immediate red flag, words that I would not let someone use around the kids without calling them out on it. But thankfully that very rarely happens.
t So instead of focusing on the reaction to negative things they may hear, we take a more positivity-focused approach to diversity. My oldest son is a bookworm and loves historical fiction. After reading a few books about World War II, he got interested in Jewish culture. So this year, along with our Christmas tree and stockings, we lit a Menorah and ate some traditional Jewish foods (latkes are out of sight, y’all). The first night of Hanukkah, before we lit the first candles, he read some facts to us about the holiday and why it was celebrated. The kids may have been disappointed that they didn’t get eight nights of presents, but hey, we had to draw the line somewhere.
t Both of my oldest children are in regular school now, and both of them have good friends who are first-generation Americans whose parents moved here from another country. My wife and I love to see how they get inquisitive about the differences of how things are done with their friends’ families, whether it’s the food they have for dinner or the language the parents speak in their homes. For us, teaching diversity isn’t so much about sitting our kids down and having a long discussion as it is about letting their natural curiosity take over, and creating an environment where they are encouraged to celebrate the differences between themselves and others, to learn from other cultures and to accept their peers without hesitation.
t Kids grow up accepting what is around them as normal, and all too often, parents’ own hangups get in the way of that and end up being the complicating factor. If the kids grow up in a diverse environment, exposed to different cultures, races and religions, there’s no reason to expect they’d have a problem with any of them unless they pick up those prejudices from the adults in their lives. By avoiding those hangups in the first place, we do our best to create an environment that encourages our kids to show love and respect to everyone.