Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Children's black & white views (no pun intended … kind of)

Welcome to the July 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Learning About Diversity
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how they teach their children to embrace and respect the variety of people and cultures that surround us. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Children's black & white views (no pun intended … kind of) == Hobo Mama
Children tend to view the world in black & white, and they choose sides early.

When I was a kid, I had it decided: The Army was good. (My dad was in the Army.) The Air Force was bad. (This despite the fact that I had friends whose parents were in the Air Force.)

Living in houses was good; apartments were bad.

My favorite color, blue, was good. Red was bad.

My husband has his own stories. His father worked for Ford, so he knew that Chevrolets were evil.

We both were raised religiously, so of course our belief system was the right one in our eyes.

Children tend to view the world in black and white, us vs. them, making groups and categories as they sort the world and valuing the ones they belong to.

This is entirely natural … and then, when you're out in public and your six-year-old says something incredibly racist, loudly (ahem) … you realize it can also be problematic.

How do I, as a parent and an adult, with years of experience and a large array of grays added to my palette, confront the either-or mentality of a little child? How do I teach him there is value even in what we are not, and guide him to keep socially offensive opinions to himself when we're around others who might be hurt — and yet not shut down the tough, intricate conversations I want him to be comfortable having with me?

If you figure it out, let me know.

On the one hand, I recognize this characteristic for what it is: a natural developmental trait that likely evolved for safety and social purposes. Those who identify strongly with their own group are more likely to be accepted by the group and more likely to make choices in line with what's been established as safe (I think of toddlers' typical food pickiness in this category — if you shy away from what your group doesn't usually eat, you're probably protecting yourself from exposure to various poisons).

So I know the rah-rah-our-team mentality has a firm anthropological basis to it, and I don't blame children for having it. I do have problems when adults can't seem to grow out of it, but that's another discussion….

Well, no, I suppose it's part of this one. I believe it's in the parents' job description to help their children grow out of that mentality. We know that that's their norm: compartmentalizing, judging the other. So we as parents have to be the ones intentionally, repeatedly, pointing out that people not like us are still valued, that their lives and cultures and choices are valid. We need to be the ones opening our children's eyes to a larger "team" they can be part of, one that embraces us all.

I wrote about this before in "Talking about race with (white) kids" — that I've tried to have ongoing conversations with Mikko about the things that make us all unique. I want him to be aware of his own race, and the privileges associated with it, and comfortable talking with me about the topic. We've done a lot of comparisons to that end about what skin color various people he knows have, including those in our immediate family. I point out that my skin is very light and pinkish, and so is his little brother's. I show him that his skin is more of a yellowish-tan that gets browner in the sun, and so is his father's and aunt's.

But then we have these experiences. Like, we're at a restaurant and I see a family seated beside us with a little boy around Alrik's age. I say to Mikko, "Look — what a cute boy!" And he looks, takes it in, then says, gulp, "He would be — if he didn't have brown skin." And I hope fervently that the adults at the table didn't overhear, that it's not my own six-year-old heaping a new helping of prejudice onto their existence. Ugh. I try to hush him in the restaurant and turn the conversation; later, I bring up the topic, but it seems the moment is lost.

But then a few days later, we're out and a little boy, also with brown skin, also around Alrik's age, comes dancing up to us. He's adorable, and I make funny faces at him, but he has eyes only for Mikko. So I worry. I worry a lot. I worry that the next thing out of Mikko's mouth will be something horrific and insulting and that the boy and his nearby parents will overhear. Instead, Mikko plays with him gamely and enjoys the attention. As we're leaving, he tells me after we're out of earshot, "He's such a cute boy, isn't he, Mama? I wish I had brown skin like that."

Which team will he choose today?
And so I learn that the teams are also — inconsistently, illogically, unexpectedly — fluid for children. One day Mikko laments to me that his skin turns browner in the sun and wishes for skin like mine that only burns and freckles (why??), and the next day, he's telling me he wishes his skin were even darker and talking up the benefits of melanin.

I suspect it has something to do with his continuing to navigate his place in the group and figuring out, day by day, which sub-group he wants to identify with. On a day he wants my paler skin, he might be feeling an affinity to me and wanting to show he belongs as my son. On another day, maybe he's feeling more independent, or maybe he realizes he'd be just as happy belonging to a different group. I imagine this sort of back-and-forth is even stronger in children born or adopted into multicultural families — shifting identifications as loyalties are tested and explored.

Or, and here's another point I've realized, preferring skin colors from one day to the next just doesn't have the same baggage for a little (white) kid as it might for adults (or children of color). It seems to be akin to preferring the green cup one day and the blue one the next, with the language coded in six-year-old speak of "I hate blue! … No, I hate green! I love blue!" We wouldn't bristle and get worked up over a color preference like that, but we sometimes ascribe adult and racist motivations to a skin-color (or other) preference that is much more weighted in our society.

That said, his words can hurt. I feel awful wondering whether the family of that little boy in the restaurant overheard his careless words. I want him to know there are certain things we can say, and certain things we shouldn't — out of politeness, out of concern for other people's feelings, in order to stay within the bounds of appropriate behavior. And then — I don't want it just to be a veneer of courtesy. I want him to really, truly think it's just fine if that boy has brown skin (but with no need to dislike his own). I want him to see the beauty in people who have a different skin color, or language, or culture, or size, or physical ability, or whatever. (Yes, I could tell more cringe-worthy stories…. I almost wrote this post about my kid's questioning of same-sex partnership, or people of size, or people who use wheelchairs, or girls' abilities and preferences…the list goes on. We talk about all these things often, about being accepting and letting everyone be different, and each time it's as if it's the first time we ever have!)

He even, in his childlike way, is on Team Perfection, where he thinks every body should be an ideal he has — so he'll point out our flab, and my pimples — and he even has gotten dismayed talking about the fact that he has his own physical imperfection (due to a surgery he had as an infant). As if he's failed himself and kicked himself off his own team! And I want him to let it go, to accept that we're all so varied and different and not perfect, and lovely anyway, and that he should think we're all just fine the way we are.

And, yet: I can't make anyone think anything, can I? And I fear that hissing at him when he's crossed the line in public, "Mikko…shut your piehole!" will not make him any more likely to be tolerant so much as certain that he's not allowed to express his opinions … to me.

So what would you do? (Beyond the obvious of continuing to talk it all out.) How do you react in a public environment when your child says something inappropriate? How do you react afterwards, in private? How do you teach and model what sort of language is polite and acceptable and what would not be? Guidance graciously accepted!

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon July 9 with all the carnival links.)
  • A gift for my daugther — Amanda, a special education teacher for students with multiple exceptionalities, discusses at My Life in a Nutshell how she will enrich her daughter's life by educating her the amazing gifts her students will bring to the world.
  • The Beauty in Our Differences — Meegs at A New Day writes about her discussions with her daughter about how accepting ourselves and those around us, with all our beautiful differences and similarities, makes the world a better place.
  • Accepting Acceptance and Tolerating Tolerance — Destany at They Are All of Me examines the origins of and reasons behind present day social conformity.
  • Differencessustainablemum discusses what she feels to be the important skills for embracing diversity in her family home.
  • Turning Japanese — Erin Yuki at And Now, for Something Completely Different shares how she teaches her kiddos about Japanese culture, and offers ideas about "semi immersion" language learning.
  • Celebrating Diversity at the International House Cottages — Mommy at Playing for Peace discovers the cultures of the world with her family at local cultural festivals
  • Learning About Diversity by Honoring Your Child’s Multiple Heritages — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama looks at the importance of truly knowing your roots and heritage and how to help children honor their multiple heritages.
  • People. PEOPLE! — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is trying to teach her children to use language that reflects respect for others, even when their language doesn't seem to them to be disrespectful.
  • Call Me Clarice, I Don't Care - A True Message in Diversity — Lisa at The Squishable Baby knows that learning to understand others produces empathetic children and empathetic families.
  • Diversity of Families — Family can be much more then a blood relation. Jana at Jananas on why friends are so important for her little family of three.
  • Diverse Thoughts Tamed by Mutual Respect — Amy at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work thinks that diversity is indispensable to our vitality, but that all of our many differences require a different sort of perspective, one led by compassion and mutual respect.
  • Just Shut Up! — At Old New Legacy, Becky gives a few poignant examples in her life when listening, communication and friendship have helped her become more accepting of diversity.
  • The World is our Oyster — Mercedes at Project Procrastinot is thankful for the experiences that an expat lifestyle will provide for herself as well as for her children.
  • Children's black & white views (no pun intended … kind of) — Lauren at Hobo Mama wonders how to guide her kids past a childish me vs. them view of the world without shutting down useful conversation.
  • Raising White Kids in a Multicultural World — Leanna at All Done Monkey offers her two cents on how to raise white children to be self-confident, contributing members of a colorful world. Unity in diversity, anyone?
  • Ramadan Star and Moon Craft — Celebrate Ramadan with this star and moon craft from Stephanie at InCultureParent, made out of recycled materials, including your kid's art!
  • Race Matters: Discussing History, Discrimination, and Prejudice with Children — At Living Peacefully with Children, Mandy discusses how her family deals with the discrimination against others and how she and her husband are raising children who are making a difference.
  • The Difference is Me - Living as the Rainbow Generation — Terri at Child of the Nature Isle, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, is used to being the odd-one-out, but walking an alternative path with children means digging deeper, answering lots of questions and opening to more love.
  • My daughter will only know same-sex marriage as normal — Doña at Nurtured Mama realizes that the recent Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage will change the way she talks to her daughter about her own past.
  • Montessori-Inspired Respect for Diversity — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells about her multicultural family and shares Montessori-inspired ideas for encouraging respect for diversity.
  • EveryDay Diversity — Ana at Panda & Ananaso makes diversity a part of everyday living, focusing on raising of compassionate and respectful child.
  • Diversity as Part of Life — Even though Laura at Authentic Parenting thought she had diversity covered, she found out that some things are hard to control.
  • Inequity and Privilege — Jona is unpacking questions raised by a summit addressing inequity in breastfeeding support at Life, Intertwined.
  • 3 Ways to Teach Young Children About Diversity — Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama recognizes her family's place of privilege and shares how she is teaching her little ones about diversity in their suburban community.
  • Teaching diversity: tales from public school — A former public high school teacher and current public school parent, Jessica at Crunchy-Chewy Mama values living in a diverse community.
  • 30 Ideas to Encourage Learning about Diversity While Traveling — Traveling with kids can bring any subject alive. Dionna at Code Name: Mama has come up with a variety of ways you can incorporate diversity education into your family travels (regardless of whether you homeschool). From couch surfing to transformative reading, celebrate diversity on your next trip!
  • Diversity, huh? — Jorje of Momma Jorje doesn't do anything BIG to teach about diversity; it's more about the little things.
  • Chosen and Loved — From Laura at Pug in the Kitchen: Color doesn't matter. Ethnicity doesn't matter. Love matters.
  • The One With The Bright Skin — Stefanie at Very Very Fine tries to recover from a graceless response to her son's apparent prejudice.


Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

In an ideal world, I'd respond gently to the child, talk to the other person if necessary ("we are always learning about how everyone's differences make the world wonderful"...?), and then have a more open discussion once we'd left the situation.

In reality I've usually hushed Kieran and then had a conversation later that is gentle, but I'm fairly urgent in my requests to be mindful of others' feelings.

It's so tough to remain calm and to remember that our children are not being malicious *in that moment* of mortification.

Meegs said...

Its hard, and we have to fight our own embarrassment, but it goes a long way to gently talk to them, right there and then about how people come in different colors, shapes and sizes (and that all are beautiful). The best time to have these discussions is in the moment, when they are thinking about it and open to hearing what you have to say about it. Plus, it can go a long way to anyone who might have overheard to let them know that these aren't things that are being taught, that its just a child being a child.

Unknown said...

I think society kinda pushes kinds in the black and white worldview. I actually wrote and article about that once. The way you have the bad and the good in each story and it's always clear etc... We started talking to our daughter early on about the greyness of many things and she's generally also pretty grey in her standpoints. I do sometimes feel a tendency for her to categorize, but we try to steer her away from that

desfenton said...

I love reading about Miko's thoughts on the subject! I have been confronted many a time with awkward, ill-timed comments.

Walking into a store, Karlie shouts, "Look at that girls hair!" while pointing at a little black girl who had cornrows. Or, "Mama, look at that woman's face!" after seeing a woman who had some sort of skin condition that caused her to have small black moles all over her face.

I took those times to say equally as loud, "yes, that's beautiful, isn't it?" and prayed like crazy that she wouldn't contradict me. Mind you, those were instances where clearly her voice was ringing loudly and clearly for all around to judge her prejudices.

It's funny to me that we are so concerned with the fear that others will view our childrens choice of words as a lesson they were taught at home by racist parents, when those same people could very well look at our very white skin and find it not only awful - but something to loathe and fear... I don't encounter others and assume that they are biased against me in any way. Yet, I fear others will make that assumption about me. Funny.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Dionna @ Code Name: Mama: Yep! It's usually afterwards that I think of what I should have said…

Lauren Wayne said...

@Meegs: Thank you, yes — in my example, emphasizing that I think the child's skin color is just fine would have been a good starting point in case the other family overheard us. Or, in the second example where he's downplaying his own skin color, I could say, "Yes, his skin really is beautiful! I love your skin, too." Thanks for letting me think this through. Maybe I won't be so tongue-tied in future!

Lauren Wayne said...

@mamapoekie: Gosh, yes, children's stories are a whole world of black-and-white, good-and-evil, and there's the problematic myth of ugly = evil, too, which is a whole other (but related) discussion. I'm guessing those stories sprang up related to the fact that children have that mindset — in other words, I don't know for sure which one caused the other, but I do agree they're mutually reinforcing. I love movies like Spirited Away for that reason, which have no clear villains and many ambiguous characters, and I try not to write heroes and villains into my children's stories.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Destany Fenton: "Yes, that's beautiful, isn't it?" is just the right response; thanks for the idea! Here's hoping, as you say, that Mikko won't contradict me. I've been known to give him the bum's rush out of a place where I can see he's about to let loose with some loud observation.

Very interesting point that we don't always assume people are biased against us. Although, honestly, I often am worried about that. I guess that's my social anxiety seeping through, lol, or my well-ingrained white guilt!

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite stories is one my grandma used to tell, from when I was very little. She took me to church and I was rubbing her hand vigorously. She asked me what I was doing and apparently I asked why "it won't come off." My grandmother was black and I wanted to rub it onto myself. I think you're dead on that kids associate skin color with their emotions about that person. I wanted to be like my grandma in that moment.

Jessica said...

Thank you so much for sharing so honestly. You've got such great insights here, and it is so important to keep developmental and evolutionary ideas in our heads even as we live in the 21st century. I also think we could benefit from having an attitude about comments that is neither black nor white. We could say, "That's a surprising comment! Where did you get that idea?" or "And what would happen if you did xyz (have browner skin, etc.)" If we follow with questions, sometimes those illogical connections are laid bare and we see that it has nothing to do with better or less than but rather with liking polar bears over brown bears or who knows what. I think it's always good to remind kids "It hurts people's feelings when we say one way is better than another" to instill empathy at large without making them heap on meaning to comments that didn't have a loaded history like they would coming from an aware adult.

sustainablemum said...

I would love to think that we live in a world where children could be accepted for whatever they say, they are after all part of our diversity they are adults in the making but are nonetheless an important part of society. The intolerence of children is, to me, extremely relevant to this blog carnival as they should be part of any diversity debate.

Unknown said...

I do love sustainablemum's comment. She said it right on! The intolerance of children needs to be discussed.

At any rate, I don't have any answers. Children are innocent. They will tell you exactly what they are thinking. I think that's a good thing.

However I find that picture of the baby on the chest board to be quite stunning!

lkgmita said...

I agree with Lisa that it is wonderful that kids are so honest. One of the reasons prejudice is so hard to root out is that people are so clever at hiding it. At least kids say just what's on their mind, so if we are quick enough on our feet we can address it right away and encourage them to think more deeply about it.

Deb Chitwood said...

Wonderful thought-provoking post, Lauren! And I love the insightful discussion in the comments. It's awesome that so many are concerned with having open and honest discussions with young children, encouraging them to be accepting of the differences within our world.

Unknown said...

I thought it was interesting that Mikko would go back and forth on preferring his own or your skin color!

When I was a kid, I always wanted to look like my mother (I have dark hair, olive complexion, she is very fair and blonde and blue eyes). So I always think I'm much darker than I actually am and have always identified as "brown" (Mexican) even though on that side I am always the "white" one.

But I think that it's true, what you say about kids' perception of color not being as loaded as adults' (or children of color). I like what previous commenters have said about bringing up the differences and framing in a positive light.

I Thought I Knew Mama said...

You are so right about how children see the world in black and white. The way you started this post really took me back to my own childhood beliefs - and let's just say, I'm glad I've evolved since then. ;-)

We haven't yet had the super awkward public comments to deal with, and I think about it a lot because I can't believe we've made it this far without it and I know it's going to happen any day. I've had a lot of excellent responses in my fantasy world, ut I know when it happens, my mind will go blank, and I'll only think of what I wish I said later on.

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