My 11-year-old daughter picks up prejudices and biases from her peers. A month ago, she made some horrifying anti-Muslim statements. We sat her down and tried to logically argue out these prejudices, but she kept saying, “Vinita (a girl in her class) is always right, Vinita is telling the truth.” Then it was, “Hitler was a great man.” Yesterday, she made more racist comments, and this time, the source was someone else. How can we teach her to think out these things out for herself and not be swayed by prejudices voiced around her?
It is chilling when children come home with this kind of stuff in their heads. As you’re experiencing through your child, intolerance and prejudice are all around us. Like doctors tell us about germs, against which immunity and resistance have to be built up, your child is going to hear theories, bigoted ideas and downright ugly talk as she grows. It’s your role to give her enough internal resources to prevent her from buying into it.
Like with all prejudice— against the poor, other communities, nations, colour—‘knowing better’ is the first counter-strategy. Instead of making blanket, abstract statements such as “Hitler was bad” or “African-Americans are wonderful people”, or “Don’t speak ill of Muslims”, try exposing your child to diversity, to people of other communities, economic groups and nationalities, if possible. Put a face to the “other”. Talk about other countries, their history—in age-appropriate doses—or expose her to multicultural media. But don’t overwhelm her with information.
It’s heartening the way prejudice rapidly vanishes with exposure to cultures and ways of life that people were wary or critical of. Many grown-ups bash other communities without having interacted with a single person of those groups. Once they actually get to know people of a community, most feel foolish at the generalizations they had made. It’s that much easier with children, who are more open to new experiences and inputs. Tolerance, then, comes more naturally when kids learn to recognize and respect different choices—of worship, food habits, dress or custom. That is a more genuine and practical tolerance than one that comes from banning un-PC statements and forcing her to repeat good things without really understanding what she’s saying.
A second strategy could be to subtly bring out the fact that the kids feeding her biased content are ignorant and are parroting other ignorant people. Since your child is in that “Vinita knows everything” mode, you’ll have to do this subtly—not with an outright “Vinita is talking rubbish” statement. Once you’ve inserted the idea that blanket statements of hate/intolerance come from underexposed minds, you will have got your foot in the door.
Additionally, try and get the school to tackle the issue of diversity, not just in a one-nation-one-world mode, but in a more nuanced way. This could go a long way in informing impressionable minds on the subject. Perhaps you and other like-minded parents could offer to take a module regularly with different age groups, in the form of providing exposure, rather than just lecturing.
Finally, I advise you not to overreact to your daughter’s statements, since she is still quite young and should be allowed to go through her current process, with you providing a broader canvas and perspective in the background. Have faith that the way you as a family live and interact with other people, your attitudes and your world-view, your belief in what is right and good, will percolate to your kids.
Write to Gouri Dange at firstname.lastname@example.org