Raising Little Racists

December 14, 2016

A child, or children, in the school district in which I live recently wrote the “n” word, as well as swastikas, on the window of a publicly-owned school bus. I don’t know what age/grade range we are talking here, although I am not sure it really matters.

That children of any age, in any locale, would engage in such behavior is awful, but the fact that it happened in MY home school district is pretty horrifying. I live in a suburban, middle class school district largely populated by children with plenty of food in their high-end refrigerators and two parents in their 4-bedroom, 2-car-garage, single-family homes. Our parents spend many weekends attending day-long soccer tournaments, pay for karate and piano lessons and educational enrichment at places like Kumon and Sylvan Learning Center. Back to school night is usually a zoo, teacher conferences are usually attended by both parents, and the PTA is a robust organization that probably has enough volunteers for three school districts. We have a Whole Foods. We have wine enthusiasts. There are many yoga studios.

Ours is a well-funded school district whose children routinely earn high standardized test scores. Our high school regularly sends its sports teams to statewide championships. We employ caring, qualified, devoted educators who are committed to providing the best possible education to all of their students, regardless of their limitations. Some older residents complain that school taxes are too high and criticize the forward-thinking decision to build new schools or update old ones so that they are state-of-the-art learning facilities. High schoolers have many AP options, most go on to college, and judging by the student parking lot, drive pretty nice cars.

My point being, this is a well-funded school district that largely serves the children of educated, well-heeled, high-end-luxury-car-driving parents who expect that their children will receive an outstanding, diverse, and mutli-faceted public education, from kindergarten through graduation. They believe themselves to be unencumbered by bigotry of any kind and strive to instill in their kids the values of kindness, respect, and acceptance of all people, regardless of color, race, or creed. These same parents, if you asked them, would likely insist that they do not tolerate racism in any form or from any source, including, and most especially, their children.

But now, at least one kid has written the “n” word, as well as swastikas, on the window of a public school bus.

That this happened probably shouldn’t be a surprise, even in my school district, given the current political climate in which a newly-emboldened segment of our country has learned that they can share the fact of their deplorability with the rest of the world without fear of criticism or negative judgment. At the same time, the person who emboldened them in the first place has refrained from condemning this conduct in any meaningful or effective way. Instead, he has remained uncharacteristically silent as to whether such behavior is consistent with the agenda he hopes to pursue as president, having apparently determined that the cast of “Hamilton” and “Saturday Night Live” present a larger and more invidious threat to civility and public discourse than the increasing incidence of racial epithets and anti-Semitic slurs by school children.

The blog by Dr. Munson is thoughtful and conveys the depth of understanding and insight required to generate awareness and sensitivity, which is the only way that such ugliness is ever erradicated. As a parent who has attempted to instill values and morality in my children by means of this type of respectful dialogue (as opposed to the “because I said so, and don’t argue with me” approach), I applaud Dr. Munson’s patience and good intentions in the hope of enlightening those who might otherwise add their voices to such hateful expression.

As a parent, however, I also understand that there are some moments when the “because I said so, and don’t argue with me” approach is an appropriate response to put an end to behavior which is unacceptable, such as running out into the street or jumping up and down with an open pair of scissors in ones hand. On those occasions when our children are doing or about to do something potentially life-threatening, we don’t stop to engage in a “teachable moment” dialogue, unless by “teachable moment” you mean, “STOP THAT THIS INSTANT, NOW, AND DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN.” If you want to sit down later, when all involved have cooled down and are sufficiently removed from the emotion of the situation to discuss why it’s not okay to play with razor blades or get into that stranger’s van to help him find his puppy, that’s fine. But perhaps the overriding message to be conveyed in such instances is that some things, you just don’t do, ever. EVER.

As a parent who has also raised millenials against the backdrop of the self-esteem movement, moreover, I have shied away from shaming my children, preferring instead to point out that certain behavior is not okay without suggesting that the child in question is an inherently bad person for having engaged in it. I think this is the right course 99% of the time, but there are circumstances in which shame is appropriate, and when children should be made to confront the reality and enormity of their conduct. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it should be addressed swiftly, unequivocally, and absolutely. For example, if your child were to call a friend a “retard” as shorthand for suggesting that said person, though of average intelligence, is nonetheless behaving in a way that casts doubt as to his or her judgment in a particular situation, an appropriate response would be, “That is not okay, you know better, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

And so, when I read the article in the local newspaper about some budding little anti-Semitic racist(s) living in my own backyard, I ultimately concluded that Dr. Munson’s blog was probably the right response. I believe that beginning a dialogue and creating a forum for honest and respectful discussion is a good thing. Facilitating all of us in becoming more enlightened and enriched by the sharing of our collective experiences is a good, high-minded approach. Perhaps it will even encourage us to rethink old attitudes and emerge as more loving, mindful, and inclusive individuals who, in turn, set an example of acceptance, tolerance, and caring.

But I had another response as well as regards the children who scrawled this filth on the windows of busses my tax dollars helped pay for and maintain, and to those who taught them such hatred:

Shame on you. You know better. This is not okay. Don’t ever – EVER – do this again.

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