My kids are aged three and five . My daughter, Salem, is three and my son, Ewan, will be five in May.
Both of them go to school. Salem goes to a “pretend” school, meaning she goes to private daycare, and our daycare lady takes Salem to a little school each morning where other kids her age play and learn. It’s almost like junior junior kindergarten.
Ewan goes to full-day junior kindergarten (he started last summer) and has had a blast making new friends, learning new things, discovering who he is, and generally being a kid on a new adventure (much like his sister).
The friends and teachers that both Salem and Ewan are surrounded by are from every race, religion, and colour on our beautiful planet today – and yet neither Ewan nor Salem know this.
To them, they’re simply friends and teachers. There’s no Asian, no black, no brown, no other white kids, no Costa Rican daycare Nana for Salem, no Scottish dad, no Canadian mother.
Because, much like hate, kids don’t see black, white, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc – they simply see people.
So when does innocence and acceptance turn into hate?
Hate is Ingrained
When I was a kid living in Edinburgh, about 8-9 years old, it was in a very white neighbourhood. In fact, there was only one non-white family, an Indian family that lived across the street from us.
They had a little girl my age, who was in the class next door to mine. I’d never met her, had never spoken with her, never played with her – but I did have a singular impression of her, and that was that she was dirty.
Not dirty as in unwashed, but dirty as in smelly. This came from my great aunt, who would loudly and frequently say,
You have Indians living on your street? Make sure they don’t create a health hazard – smelly, dirty bastards.
While I wasn’t quite sure what a bastard was, even at eight I knew it couldn’t be a good thing, if it was tied to smelly and dirty. So, naturally, because my own family had said this (and my mum and stepdad had laughed and agreed), I saw the little girl across the street as dirty. Smelly. And probably a bastard.
It was only when I had to sit down next to her at lunch one day that I realized how wrong I was.
She was an angel. A beautiful, happy little girl who only wanted to be friends and fit in. Who didn’t smell. Who wasn’t dirty. And was clearly not whatever a bastard was.
My world was confused – how could this be? Looking back, I guess that may have been one of the points where I realized life was complicated and not as it seems.
We Are What We’re Told
One of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, has a wonderful quote, that has stayed with me ever since I heard it as a young man. The quote is below.
The key point that stood out for me when I first heard this was the part about us learning to hate, as opposed to being born hating – because it reminded me so much of my experience with my Indian neighbour and subsequent schoolfriend.
Before I got to know her, I’d already judged and would never have thought differently, because my family – my trusted educators – had taught me there was something undesirable about this little girl.
The same happened many times, in many shapes and sizes, as I was growing up.
- My grandparents, my stepdad, my uncles, my cousins – they all told me that “the English are bastards, we hate them and all of Scotland does.”
- My schoolfriends – based on what they’d been taught – made me believe that girls were stupid (intelligence-wise) and this is why they could only ever be any good in the kitchen, and to leave the real jobs for men.
- My first boss made me believe that sexual orientation was wrong, if it was anything other than a man loving a woman, and a woman loving a man. Being gay wasn’t normal – instead, gay men were fags, gay women were ugly dykes, and they would all kill the human race through dirty behaviour.
This is the atmosphere I was brought up in. The atmosphere I was raised in, every day. The atmosphere my first entry into the adult world as a working person, contributing back to society, was presented as.
When all that is around you, and from the very people that are meant to be the ones that raise you right, is it any wonder we have so much hatred around us?
Change Your Stars
There are many different viewpoints on when children become critical thinkers, and don’t rely on the information put in front of them.
I’m not a scientist or psychologist, and would never claim to be one (nor is this post meant to offer that kind of advice – I merely want to start a discussion around how we combat hate).
However, I do buy into the belief that ages 10-12 is the core age when we’ve lost the ability to positively shape thoughts and ideas, as highlighted across at Parenting Science.
Primarily because it’s the immediate age before our teenage years kick in, where we are under so much peer pressure to fit in and conform if we want to be liked, and also because had I been able to avoid the kind of racism, bigotry and sexism that was in my childhood world, I may have been able to make better decisions long before I did.
It wasn’t until my late teens, when I went to University and finally moved out of home, that I realized much of all I had known and believed was wrong.
- Gay men and women are not evil sexual destroyers – if anything, we (the “clean-living heterosexuals at all costs”) are;
- Men are by far the more dumber of the two sexes, in many, many ways – just look at the misogyny around #Gamergate and the new Ghostbusters movie if you want further proof of how we, as men, continue to be dumb;
- People of different colour, race and religion are just like you and me, often with the same dreams and goals – go figure.
Once I realized this, it broke my heart – because it essentially meant my life leading up to that realization had been a sham, a series of lies from a time gone by, from a family whose poisonous members were creating another purveyor of hatred.
And that hurt like hell.
But, as the father of Heath Ledger’s character in the movie A Knight’s Tale advises, we can always change our stars and be better people. We may have had our paths set for us, but that doesn’t mean they’re permanent – we have the power to change them.
The Question Is – Can We? Will We?
I’ll be the first to admit, as a young man alone in a different country (ironically, England – that place of so-called hated bastards…) it was scary trying to redo who I was.
My ingrained prejudices still came to the fore now and again, and it took me a long time to completely change the person I’d been taught to be. But it did happen.
We are responsible for the hatred we possess. Whether it’s as adults teaching kids, or adults finding our own place in the world, all we know is not always all we have to learn.
I’m not naive enough to believe that the hatred, vitriol, abuse, and everything else that’s inherently wrong with us as the human race will disappear anytime soon. But if we make more of an effort to allow and encourage open thinking, maybe we can start the process.
Teach kids non-gender neutrality
Yes, there will always be things that boys prefer and girls prefer, but colours and games aren’t necessarily the case. Why is pink only for girls and blue for boys? Why can’t my son play with his sister’s Princess toys (hint: he does, the same way my daughter plays with my son’s Thomas the Tank and Avengers toys). My wife and I are very determined to raise equal gender strength and opportunity kids.
Teach kids it’s okay to challenge
Yes, we want to raise our kids to be respectful of others, and that – for the most part – adults may know better, depending on how old the kids are. But make sure children know it’s okay to ask why, challenge the status quo, and not be brushed off with the “because you’re a child” routine. That teaches nothing.
Answer childrens’ questions about those that are “different”
In my son’s class, he has a friend who is permanently in a wheelchair. But he never asks why – because he’s never been taught that this is “different” because, simply put, it’s not. A child is in a wheelchair, and won’t be able to do some physical things the other kids can – but that’s all. In every other aspect, he’s a smart, funny, wonderful, and – yes – NORMAL kid. Because that’s who he is.
Present the atmosphere your child’s learning needs
I grew up in a household where my stepdad beat my mum, my sister, and me. He was a violent asshole, and the day he died was a day I celebrated. The atmosphere changed completely then, and I’m sure that helped settle my sister and I (although the bigotry and other crap was there, unbeknownst to me). Kids are smart – how we present life around them is what they’ll take into the world.
Like I said, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not trained in the mind, or how children learn. This post is from my own experience, what I learned and then had to unlearn.
I could have been an extremely hateful person. I’d like to think I’m not, and that – with my wife and the teachers we’re really fortunate to have educate our kids – my kids will grow up not knowing what hate is too (the word is banned in our house).
It’s not too much to ask, is it?