Wednesday, January 21, 2015

If We Don't Teach It

This past week my son had a friend over to play for a few hours. Most of their time was spent as usual...legos, playing in the snow, lots of giggling. After one particularly long stretch out in the cold, they came inside and settled at my table for some hot chocolate.

And then.

Then, this seven-year-old, this guest in my house, looked straight at me and told me a racist joke about a Chinese person and started laughing. My son looked at me- I think he knew something wasn't right about it but he wasn't sure what exactly was going on. I was speechless. What do you say to a young child who has just said something like this?

So, I engaged him in a discussion. I asked him where he'd learned the joke. He made it up. I asked him why he thought it was funny. He said "it just is" and told me the punch line again and started laughing. I asked him whether he thought it was kind to say things that make fun of people. He shrugged me off and said it was no big deal and that he was just trying to be funny.

No big deal? Really?

Now, I could have let this go, right? After all, he's just a kid. There was no Chinese person in the room that might be offended, right? No one would know he ever said it except for me and my son. Thi kid is not even my kid so it's maybe not really my place, anyway. Probably his "intent" was not to be malicious. You hear a lot about intent regarding racism, especially from us white people. Well, if he didn't INTEND for it to be mean, what's the big deal, right? Can't we just take things less seriously and laugh?

Ah. No, actually. Just because he didn't intend to be rude doesn't mean that he wasn't. Intent does not cover over all manner of sins. Just because there was nobody there to be offended or hurt does not mean that the offense should be left alone.

And here's the deal. MY son was watching and listening. MY son wanted to see what a person is supposed to do in this situation. And you know what? Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I subscribe to that school of parenting that says that when a kid is at your home, he abides by your rules. And in our house? Kind words are the rule. Non-racist jokes are the rule. And honesty in confrontation is the rule.

Let me backpedal a minute here. I do not think this child's parents taught him this joke. I doubt they walk around telling racist jokes in his presence. I don't know if he's told them this joke or not and how they reacted. I am not trying to make a statement about their parenting because I know our kids sometimes say crazy things we probably never hear about. But I do think that if I stay silent just because this is a kid and I might hurt his feelings, I am not only teaching my own child that silence is an acceptable avenue when presented with injustice but I am also missing a chance to say something that maybe this child hasn't yet heard. After all, us white people aren't exactly known for educating our kids about racism from a young age.

So I tried to be gentle and keep my frustration in check. I explained why the joke wasn't acceptable and why I felt he shouldn't tell it anymore. Again, he shrugged it off. I made it clear that it would be completely unacceptable in our home and that if he continued to speak that way he would no longer be welcome here. He understood that particular point and promised not to tell it again. Hot chocolate finished, they moved on to play.

And friends?

I am not kidding you, not 20 minutes later, that same child looked me square in the eye and made a sexist comment. Some of you who know me well know that at this point this kid was likely in danger of a full out rant. Seriously?

Yet again I engaged him. Yet again he shrugged it off. Yet again I made it clear that anyone who is going to speak about girls that way in my home will not be invited back. My son's big eyes followed both these confrontations. He took it all in.

Now, I don't know if this kid will come over again. To be honest, I wouldn't really mind if he was no longer in the social mix.(There's a deeper story there unrelated to this most recent interaction.)

But the bigger issue to me is this - how has this happened? How has a young boy of seven already learned to make racist jokes? To make comments that disparage girls and their interests? To ALREADY not care if someone is offended by the jokes. How? Where did he learn it? Why hasn't he unlearned it? Does his family talk about racism or sexism or injustice?

I don't know.

But I do know this.

Our kids are going to get an education about these issues somewhere. They are going to hear things we don't want them to hear. Sometimes they are going to say things we don't want them to say. But they are never too young to begin to understand the power of their words. That old "sticks and stones" crap? I think we've all learned that that saying only existed to help us pretend that someone's words can't hurt when in reality we know that some of the most painful memories we carry are those linked to words. And if I choose silence in the face of these things, I am teaching my children that silence is acceptable. That shrugging it off or laughing it off is the right thing to do. That not causing trouble is the kind route.

I don't want them to learn those things.

I want them to know that they can choose kindness and honesty and truth. And that when someone, anyone, says something offensive, they have the right to speak up. To defend themselves, to defend the target of the joke (whether or not he or she is present), to challenge the teller to think about his or her words. To encourage that person to choose kindness and goodness. And if I don't know exactly what to say in every situation that comes up? Well, then what a great chance to continue my own education. To listen well and read good books and articles and grow myself and still do my best to stand for truth in those moments. To apologize when I fail and get it wrong.

If we as adults don't place ourselves in a place of humility to continue to learn and then teach these things to the children with whom we come in contact, clearly and often, through directives and examples, our kids will likely learn that popularity and humor are more important than character and truth and justice.

May it not be so.


  1. I love this post! I want to be like you when I grow up!
    It's amazing how early kids pick up on these things.
    And right on about it also being about who else is watching/listening at the time.

    1. Thanks. I feel like much of our integrity is wrapped up in how we respond even if there is no one present to defend.

  2. Hello Carolyn,

    We really enjoyed this post and would like to be able to feature it on Kindness Blog. Would that be OK?

    No problems if not :)

    Best, Mike.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks! Could you first tell me what Kindness Blog is? I've never heard of it but it sounds wonderful.

      Thanks, Carolyn