A 12-year old girl tells me she does not want to start her new middle school next week because she fears being teased for being Latina-American. I believe her… she has been struggling with name-calling and rejection for the past six months in elementary school.
As children return to school, it is imperative that we continue to teach them the critical differences between prejudice and respect. Children from different religious, ethnic, cultural, sexual orientation, and racial backgrounds may be worried about stereotypes, bias, and even hate from others given the current socio-political climate. Students may be anxious about teasing, slurs, bullying, isolation, anger, and ignorance in the classrooms and on the playgrounds. Simultaneously, other kids may have learned that it is acceptable to fear and mistrust others from different ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, national, and religious backgrounds. This may lend itself to the expression of separation, anger, and hate, creating unsafe and unhealthy environments in schools.
Hence, parents, teachers, and counselors need to be on the alert and should invite children to ask questions and express their feelings around these fears – fear of others’ differences and the fear of anger and rejection for being different.
Although these conversations may be difficult and complicated, there are ways to facilitate trust, and begin open dialogues with children. Here are some suggestions for broaching this difficult topic:
Although much of the above may sound like common sense, many of us forget to have specific and concrete discussions with our children on these complicated and painful topics. Having your children explore, define, and identify key behaviors, words, and experiences related to ‘isms’ vs. respect, will empower your children and teach them to recognize and enact the differences. Modeling acceptance and respect of others to your children is even more powerful than words, and can be transformative. It is not only imperative that we teach our children how to cope with racial, sexual, religious, and cultural biases in these difficult times, but also to teach our children not to fear these differences.