“No, I’m not,” said Nico crying in the back of the car. “You are not what?” I asked. “Abi is calling me gay,” he answered. This was one of those fully-loaded moments for me as a mom, realizing my kids are out in the world hearing and learning things from others. As a mom raising compassionate and inclusive children, addressing kids prejudice is a vital part of my parenting and although in times like this it might come as a shock, I always welcome the teaching moments.
I immediately went into investigative mode, which is what I do when they are arguing about anything and as a way to assess the level of understanding in any topic they are discussing. “Who called you gay?” “Abi,” he replied. Then I look at Abi through the rearview mirror and ask “What is gay Abi?” She explained what she thought and I went ahead to explain what it means and why it is not a term to offend anyone, that some people are gay and some aren’t but that doesn’t mean anything bad for those who are.
One of the challenges of addressing kids prejudice is that they are constantly getting conflicting information and messages in school, the groups they participate in and what we teach them at home. Although this is a challenge, it is just the way our world is and it is best to teach them early in life to have their own opinions and value system, so they know who they are in any situation as opposed to feeling pressure to follow along. My mission is for my kids to stand on principle, and in this particular case, our principle is that we don’t discriminate or mock anyone for any reason.
In this conversation, I wanted both my daughter and my son to understand two main things: 1) there is nothing wrong with being gay and 2) we don’t call people names or mock them because they are different. While having this conversation was a shock for me at first, I know as a mom that all moments with our kids are teaching moments and if we avoid certain conversations and addressing kids prejudice, we are not preparing them to be the compassionate and respectful human beings we want them to be.
Talking Nurture vs. Nature. As moms, we know the difference between what is innate in our children and what are the things we can nurture in them. When we are faced with addressing kids prejudice we know that biases and prejudice are not in the nature of children, we know those are learned. Having a conversation with your children about what comes from nature, how we all look different, have different abilities and have different likes and dislikes. Talk to them about the things that are nurtured, like kindness, respect, and compassion. This conversation will pave the way for them to understand that we shouldn’t judge anyone based on the way they look and that we can choose who we are in all situations, that is always in our control.
Build Empathy. Understanding and accepting others is a skill that takes time to develop. As moms, we have the perfect opportunity to teach our kids by example during the crucial years of their social development. Teaching kids early that people not only look different but that they also have different beliefs, values, and traditions than us is another way of addressing kids prejudice and to prevent them from being bias about others. When you give a child the chance to ponder about other people’s feelings and opinions and reflect on which things might may them feel sad or happy, you are building empathy in them. Empathy is one of the most important skills we can learn as humans, and it is the foundation to raising inclusive, multicultural children.
Zero Tolerance For Discrimination. Even if your kids are small like mine and most likely they are repeating something they heard, the moment you see a child engaging in discriminatory behavior it is important to address it. Avoiding a conversation right then and there will just make what can be a simple conversation and a small issue become an even bigger issue; not speaking up might send the child the message that the behavior is okay and that you are agreed with it. Like they say in Spanish, “el que calla otorga”. Make it clear that in your home you don’t tolerate discriminatory behavior; explain to your child why something might be hurtful or inappropriate in an age-appropriate manner. Expect to have this type of conversation with your children many times throughout their development and be understanding of where they are on the journey.