Trigger warning: racism, racial violence, murder
Day after day, year after year, the names of murdered black men and women keep getting longer and longer. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Philando Castile, Tywanza Sanders. These are all rooted in a long history of violence against black people in the U.S.; a history few white people choose to face the results of today. On the Sunday after the Charleston shooting, my my pastor directed us to build peace: “If you are a father, teach your children; if you are a mother, teach your children. If you have any influence at all, use it.” It is our responsibility as parents of all races to teach our children to find alternatives to violence, to be peacemakers. For white parents of white children like me, it’s an absolute obligation.
Here’s how I plan to help my sons become peacemakers – people who doesn’t passively accept the culture but actively works to make it more just.
Teach him to listen well.
My church has a prayer that has come up over and over again since I’ve been there: “Teach me to listen, teach me to learn, teach me to love.” It isn’t a coincidence that learning to listen comes first. Actively listening and respecting the speaker is a fundamental skill for anyone who truly wants to love their neighbor, but especially social justice advocates. Oppression robs people of the voices they should rightly have. The first step we have to take is allow them to speak about their experiences and needs and actually listen, even if (and especially if) conflicts with our own experiences. This is a skill I need to work on myself, but I hope to grow in the process of teaching him.
Help him build relationships with and expose him to media about people of different cultures and races.
One of the biggest determining factors to subverting our culture’s inherent racism and social violence is knowing and having relationships with people of other races. We can’t ourselves be peacemakers until we have internal peace on these issues. Having those relationships is one reason the LGBT movement has moved forward with a great deal of momentum – once LGBT people began making themselves known, people realized that had family and friends who were LGBT.
Unfortunately, the racial and socio-economic segregation of the country (created and reinforced by policies like redlining), makes that more difficult in regards to race. Fortunately, we live in a very multi-cultural neighborhood. In addition to it being historically black, it also has a number of immigrants, who bring their own unique experiences. Just by going to the park on a regular basis, Sprout and Little Bird already play with children of different races and backgrounds. Their future elementary school is only 36% white and 24% Asian, 17% Hispanic and 14% black. In contrast, the school where I grew up was 87% white. That makes it harder for those organic relationships to develop. Our neighborhood also makes it easier for them to develop relationships with adults of different races and ethnicities.
Beyond personal relationships, we also try to have his books and media reflect the diversity of our country. The Snowy Day, Ten Nine Eight, and One Hot Summer Day all have main characters of color without it feeling like an after-school special. As they both get older, I look forward to watching Doc McStuffins and Dora the Explorer with him.
Help him understand his privilege.
One of the most difficult truths for white people to learn is the extent of our own privilege. My own realization came from some mildly awkward situations that were nonetheless very illustrative. The sooner we can help him understand that he has advantages over other people for no good reason – even if he doesn’t want them – the easier it will be for him to process later on. I’m grateful for the fact that my mom taught me early and often about my economic privilege. I plan on doing the same for Sprout and Little Bird on race and gender as well. Knowing that other people could do the same work and not be recognized for it is fundamental to knowing what needs to change in society.
Teach him that not all rules are just and sometimes need to be broken.
Changing society often means changing the rules of it, whether they’re actual laws or just social norms. Most little kids are taught that rules are there because they are inherantly right. Many people never grow out of that perspective.
Fortunately, even though I was an inveterate rules-follower as a kid, that evolved into a more sophisticated understanding of rules and morality as an adult. I want them to think hard about rules and where they came from instead of just accepting them as Good. Whether that results in him trying to change laws through lobbying, breaking social rules by talking about uncomfortable subjects, or even participating in civil disobedience, I want them to follow their consciences.
Communicate that violence – physical or emotional – is never the answer.
The number one rule in our household is that purposefully hurting someone is unacceptable. More than anything else, we want to teach him that we value kindness and compassion. True justice and peace flows from healing and love. While anger has its place, violence does not. Learning how to channel that anger into something productive is one of the most powerful tools in the activist’s toolkit.
Creating peace isn’t just about not being violent and hoping peace shows up. It’s a continuous process of building relationships and connections. Of offering a willing ear or hand. Of being willing to look at society through someone else’s experiences. I hope these core skills can build the foundation for Sprout and Little Bird to be true peacemakers.
For more on how we’re teaching our kids progressive values, check out Seven Ways I’m Teaching my Young Sons to be Feminists and How to Introduce Kids to Political Activism. To see our #KindnessSaturday posts about people making a difference in ways big and small, follow the blog on Facebook!