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January 25, 2013, Friday

Dealing with prejudice

Earlier this week, my son came home from school, puzzled by something that had been said to him by a classmate when they were outside in the playground. From his report, they had disagreed on some topic, which was of so little importance that he could not clearly recall what they had argued about. As people too often do, neither wanted to feel as if they had lost the argument and it seems that they had not realized that friends do not always have to agree on everything. Instead of agreeing to disagree about a particular subject, both wanted to feel that they had won. When it was apparent that they were at a stalemate, the other boy said something in a very insulting tone that confused my son.

“Mom,” he asked when he arrived home: “When we were arguing, why did my friend suddenly say that I was not Turkish? He yelled at me and said that I obviously had to be Jewish. He said it in a very nasty way, like it was a bad thing. He knows we are a Muslim family and I bet he does not even know what being Jewish means.” Even I was at a loss to explain the other boy's words and intent. I took this as an opportunity for my son and me to talk about prejudices and how to try and deal with them.

From my own personal observations, most prejudices stem from ignorance. I doubt that the young boy has a clear understanding of what he said. I suspect that he was simply parroting what he had heard at home from parents or other relatives. I would be surprised if he or his family even know anything about the Jewish religion or if they have ever met anyone who practices that particular faith. Fortunately, my son has grown up knowing people of different religions, cultures and nationalities. To him, attacking someone because of where they come from or what they believe in makes no sense. He has learned that it is the person and how they behave and treat others that is important.

I think that I was fortunate to grow up in a multicultural society. At one time, we were the only Protestant family in a Jewish enclave in a city that was predominantly Hispanic and Roman Catholic. We had a steady flow of foreign exchange students staying with us for many years, so from a young age I was exposed to people from many different cultures, nationalities and beliefs and learned to communicate in a mixture of languages. Believing that meeting different types of people is important for personal growth and a more balanced view of the world, like my own parents, I try to introduce my son to other countries, cultures and languages. I want him to learn to be comfortable with people who are different from him and to learn not to judge someone based only on their religion, culture or nationality.

It is unfortunate that so many children are exposed to a climate of prejudices at such young ages. The outcome can be social and emotional stress that too often leads to fear and even hostility and violence. Additionally, such actions affect those who are on the receiving end, resulting in the undermining of self-esteem and self-confidence, making them feel unworthy and unaccepted in society. When children suffer from prejudices, their school work can suffer and they may become depressed and socially withdrawn.

Studies have shown that by 4 years of age, children are aware of many of the differences among people. They easily recognize differences such as appearance and language. It is later that they learn to recognize differences such as religions and cultures. Over time, they learn to identify with the differences that they see around them. The problem of prejudice arises as children grow and hear and accept stereotypes from family members and others who they respect and look up to. Since they hear prejudiced statements from people who they have respect for, they often simply accept these as truths and look no further. Instead of learning to build friendships, they learn intolerance.

Schools can play an important role in helping children to avoid or overcome prejudices by promoting cooperation and understanding. Group activities can encourage team building, stressing collaboration instead of differences. The curriculum should include, at the very least, an introduction to other cultures, languages, races and religions. Open discussions should be held about the causes of discrimination and the results of prejudices. If an incident has occurred at school or in the community, it is the perfect time to address the issue in classrooms.

For my son and me, this particular situation led us to talk about the different prejudices we have experienced as well as those that we have ourselves. He decided that the best way to deal with the interaction with his classmate was to ignore it. Obviously this boy is not ready to listen to reasons as to why he should not say such things. Hopefully, though, his parents or an adult he looks up to will show him a better way to behave and speak. Parents have the power to influence children through their words and actions. It is up to them to decide if they will help expand their children's horizons or if they will limit them by passing on their own prejudices and biases. It is important that children learn to see beyond the prejudices that they may have learned while growing up.

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