Monday, January 25, 2016

Bigotry and Children

    A common bumper-sticker states “No one is born a bigot.” 

     It bugs me.  I think the bumper sticker is mostly wrong.  I think what the sticker means to say is that children have to be taught to hate, which is mostly true.  But hate grows from fear and selfishness, and a little fear of the unknown comes naturally to almost all children.  Selfishness comes quite naturally to almost everyone.

     Bigotry is synonymous with intolerance.  It has come to be associated with racism, hatred, and intolerance for anyone who is different, holds different opinions, or has a different lifestyle.

     Bigots are people who only want to be with people who do things they like, and agree with them.  Bigots want only comfortable, familiar surroundings and get upset when anything in their world changes. That sounds like a lot of children I know.  Intolerance and bigotry is actually quite a childish frame of mind, as in something people should outgrow.

     Most children come into this world just a little fearful and they aren’t born loving everyone.  Children who hide behind their mother’s skirts to peek out and look at a stranger are as old as time.  Some children very quickly learn to be friendly, talk to others and want to mingle.  Some children are painfully shy.  Some cling to familiar things excessively.  And some just are in their own world for quite a long time before they even realize there are other people out there. 

     Children who aren’t fearful and want to talk to everyone are quickly reined in by adults who want them to be worried about stranger danger.  It is tricky to teach a child to be nice to everyone, but not to trust everyone.

      Teaching, however, is the important factor in raising children who are kind, empathetic and open minded. We teach children to learn to eat more than macaroni and cheese.  We teach children to not be afraid of the doctor’s office.  We teach children to be nice to aunts and uncles despite their bad breath, yappy dogs or annoying habits. 

     What the bumper sticker ought to say is “Teach tolerance.”

     Tolerance is something best learned by watching role models.  Children very quickly pick up on the things that irritate their parents and mimic their reactions.  Anything you do your children will feel justified in doing as well, and usually they will amplify it.  Simple remarks or venting on the part of parents can be seen as family policy statements.  “We hate that football team.”  “All those rich guys are crooks.”  “If that man wins the election I’m moving to Canada.”  “I can’t stand those neighbor kids.”

     We all have things that annoy or anger us and sometimes need to vent.   It is really best done out of earshot of children.  Children see the world as black and white and don’t understand the complicated nuances of adult feelings. A rash statement made in anger by a parent will be interpreted as absolute dogma by a child, taken all the more forcefully because of the anger.

     Being tolerant doesn’t’ mean you have to agree with everyone you meet.  Learning to disagree agreeably is really an important life skill and crucial to life in a community.  Tolerance is about the way we treat people regardless of how they vote, worship, or play.  Tolerance is about listening.  Tolerance is accepting the idea that different ideas from our own have validity and a place in the public square. 

     Intolerance isn’t a problem with just the majority, the powerful or the rich.  Sometimes the underdog is just as guilty of judging harshly without listening, of angry words, and mean spirited attitudes. Tolerance and kindness need to come from all sides. 

     Tolerance begets listening and understanding.  Understanding begets kindness.  Kindness begets happiness.  Suggestion for a new bumper sticker:  Teach tolerance, please.  

© Diane L. Mangum 2012