Nearly a century ago, Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, said,
It costs so little to teach a child to love, and so much to teach him to hate.
Recent horrific events show how much racial inequality has cost us as a nation. It also shows how Father Flanagan’s message resonates today more than ever.
Throughout history, children of color have asked why they are marginalized by society based on the color of their skin. During the height of Jim Crow, Black children were told they could not attend the same schools as their white counterparts. In many cases, Latino, Jewish and Native American children were told they could not join in sports or other activities with white children.
Despite the prevailing race relations in the America of his time, celebrating diversity was one of Father Flanagan’s core values. He lived by his word, not only welcoming children of all races, creeds and colors to the school, but also finding opportunities for them to engage with diverse groups of children at other schools. In fact, he drove across the Midwest, and ultimately traveled across the entire world, to find opportunities for students of all backgrounds to come together.
Children today experience same feelings of anger, sadness and confusion as they did then. And just like those students of the past, our kids are searching for concrete ways to accept fairness and celebrate diversity in our communities and our country.
For some, it’s marching in a protest. For others, it’s creating community via Twitter or advocacy groups. These are all important ways for them—and all of us—to stand up for what we believe is right.
But in too many cases, young people and their parents overlook tools and opportunities that exist closer to home.
It is easy for parents to gloss over conversations about uncomfortable or challenging topics, like cultural exclusion in their communities. That is a missed opportunity. Parents must help children understand how their beliefs affect those around them. Children should feel empowered to ask difficult questions, even if parents don’t have all the answers, and inspired to initiate conversations about complex topics.
Identify Teachable Moments and Set a Positive Example
These tough conversations require all of us to be brave and to identify, when possible, teachable moments to help set a positive example. The goal is to teach children how to explore and discuss their ideas about culture without fear of judgment. To ask questions and seek answers, not soundbites or clichés.
Here are a few tips to help you raise your child to be more culturally inclusive and sensitive:
- Explore Diversity: Take the time to explore what terms like “cultural acceptance” and “discrimination” really mean. As a family, do some research on the topic of culture using a qualified source and discuss what you learned during a family dinner or on a road trip.
- Discuss Cultural Biases: Recently, I experienced a teachable moment shopping in a grocery store while on vacation with my family. I was in a small town and could count the number of Black people I encountered on one hand. While looking for vegetables, I spied a young child who was curiously watching me. He pointed his small finger at me and loudly said, “Look, Mommy! She’s Black!” The boy’s mother began to apologize to me, but I stopped her in mid-sentence and said hello.
She seemed very surprised by my response. Then I turned to her son, who was smiling at me from behind his mom’s leg. I smiled back and said, “Hello there! My name is Bridget. And who are you?” He told me his name and then I said, “Yes, I am Black. It’s a really cool color!” He smiled a big grin then hopped away with his mom—who looked very relieved. In this moment, I was able to help the child see me as a person and not just a color.
- Embrace Being a Minority: Provide space for your children to explore and develop a clearer sense of what their race and culture mean to them. Empower them to learn from classmates with different backgrounds. Having a strong sense of identity is especially important for children who might get singled out for being a minority.
We can’t solve all the problems and social ills that plague our world. We can, however, teach children—one by one—to be open to and accepting of all the different cultures and people around them. It’s on adults to raise the next generation of compassionate, empathetic, enlightened kids.