teaching your children how to deal with prejudice

4 November, 2007

You walk in the park and see a tall figure standing in the shadow of a tree. You cannot make out if it is a man or a woman, but since you are with your child, you decide not to find out and turn around.

Welcome to the world of prejudice. You may not have noticed, but your instinct just told you to act without sufficient knowledge. That is called prejudice: to make up your mind based on limited information. We are born with it, fortunately.

Prejudice has helped us survive over the millennia. It has served us well, because most of those years we lived in situations where quick decisions made the difference between life and death.

No more: by now, we have become highly social, deeply embedded beings with evolved networks of acquaintances, expectations and obligations. Quick decisions may have undesirable consequences. Rather, we’d prefer to suppress them in favour of more acceptable behaviour. How do we know what type of behaviour is more acceptable? Simple: years of experience have taught us the types of civil interaction that are most appropriate.

Our children only possess their instincts. They may perceive danger where there is none or exclude peers based on differences that we consider inappropriate. Those very considerations are for them to learn and for us to teach. Clearly, our cultural heritage serves a purpose and we would be lousy parents if we did not imbue our children with a measure of what is desirable and what is not.

How? The only way that children learn: by example, rather than by telling and punishing them. Your child will learn most from your own approach to prejudice – in yourself, in your child, in others. Few children ever learned from the endless sermons of parents that know better. After all, how many parents actually follow their own admonishments? Walk the talk.

If you like your children not to have racist prejudices, how come you don’t have black friends? If you prefer them to show respect to the elderly, how come you don’t take care of your parents? Only by moving consistently beyond prejudices yourself can you convey what it means to recognise your own prejudices whilst choosing not to act on them.

This will eventually bring their attitude towards prejudice to a higher level: they will recognise prejudice when it arises. Only then will they have become human beings in the truest sense of the word.

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