In reading a very old parenting book – one from the 1950’s – I came across a passage that said if a child behaved with prejudice and intolerance, it was solely the fault and responsibility of the parents, specifically, the book blamed it on “parental narrow-mindedness.” I couldn’t help but think back over my own nearly two-decades of what I believe to be rather “open-minded” parenting and recall some major bouts my own children went through with intolerance. We parents feel enough guilt without having to take the blame for everything!
And while I do agree that often hate and bigotry are learned attitudes and behaviors, there may be times when we parents are baffled at the intolerant and snobby behavior our children are exhibiting and want to put an end to it immediately. Let’s look at the “why” first and then we can tackle the problem of what we can do about it as parents.
Prejudice, snobbery, and intolerance are basically fueled by ignorance and fear. In my own experience as a parent, the times when I noticed intolerance oozing out of my definitely raised-better children was generally during specific times when they were feeling insecure and trying to get their world back in order. Joining a new team, the jump from elementary to middle school, and again to high school, a move to a new neighborhood. Processing new information about the ever-expanding world seemed to inspire them to try to organize things into categories of this and that. While my own kids never were racially intolerant or prejudice against those who were developmentally delayed, they did express intolerance at various times for “differences” and what constituted “different” seemed to depend on the context. And, there was always the peer pressure that seemed to rear it’s ugly head on an all-too-regular basis.
Where I do agree with “classic” opinion is that we parents have more influence and opportunity to model acceptable attitudes and behaviors than we think we do. By expressing zero tolerance for intolerance and bigotry, and working to constantly practice tolerance in my own language and life, I like to think that overall I was able to help combat those periods of fear and insecurity that spawned their intolerant behavior. I do believe that we parents need to really look closely at our language and behavior and own up to it. Maybe we would never say anything racist about African-Americans, but we might make racial or gender generalizations – all Asians are good at math and science, men are better drivers than women, etc. We should look at our own ideals and whether we are practicing what we preach. Our acquiescence and ambivalence is another way we send an unclear message about intolerance to our children. We parents have to be proactive and participatory to combat the messages of intolerance and bigotry our child may be getting from other sources and society at large.
Don’t let intolerant behavior and statements slide, explaining them away as a phase. While it may, in fact, be a phase, addressing the behavior while trying to get to the root of the fear and ignorance that may be fostering the child’s behavior will help parents combat, and hopefully eliminate, intolerance.