Our Children Are Watching: What Are We Teaching Them?

Posted August 18, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog teachchildrenwell 2017

What will it take to end racism, big­otry and eth­nic hatred in America?

Char­lottesville was a vivid and shock­ing reminder that the forces of white suprema­cy, Nazism, anti-Semi­tism and intol­er­ance con­tin­ue to bub­ble beneath the sur­face of our nation’s social and polit­i­cal land­scape. These forces feed off aggres­sive­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed lies and mis­in­for­ma­tion, a deep sense of griev­ance, anx­i­ety about eco­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic shifts that have left many feel­ing aban­doned by gov­ern­ment and patho­log­i­cal fear and hos­til­i­ty toward those seen as some­how different.

In times of cri­sis and pain, we look to our lead­ers to bring us togeth­er, to heal divi­sions, to find mean­ing in tragedy and to speak out against those who would tear us apart. And so it is deeply trou­bling to see far too many of our elect­ed offi­cials fail­ing in their respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­vide clear, unam­bigu­ous moral lead­er­ship. Espe­cial­ly at this moment, when the chal­lenge is so grave, and the issues so stark­ly drawn.

This fail­ure of respon­si­bil­i­ty by our lead­er­ship is ter­ri­bly dis­heart­en­ing. Yet it reminds us that we all must rec­og­nize our per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, espe­cial­ly those of us who have ben­e­fit­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly from the inequitable and unjust dis­tri­b­u­tion of oppor­tu­ni­ty and advan­tage in so many ways. And there are no more impor­tant and more effec­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties to ful­fill that respon­si­bil­i­ty than in our inter­ac­tions with children.

Chil­dren look to their par­ents and oth­er lead­ers as they try to make sense of the world they are dis­cov­er­ing. They pick up cues con­stant­ly about who they are, their place in the world, how they should think about oth­er peo­ple, how they should behave, what’s accept­able and how they should under­stand their own responsibilities.

The vio­lence and tragedy of Char­lottesville, and the ensu­ing con­tro­ver­sy and debates over the president’s response, are prompt­ing pub­lic and pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions about race, eth­nic­i­ty and our his­to­ry. Our chil­dren are lis­ten­ing and watch­ing. What do we want them to take away? What do we want them to learn?

We know from research, our own expe­ri­ence and com­mon sense that atti­tudes and beliefs about race and eth­nic­i­ty are formed through­out child­hood and ado­les­cence. Just as we can teach chil­dren to hate and fear, we can teach them the val­ues of love and com­pas­sion, of equi­ty and jus­tice. And our most impor­tant teach­ing tool is the exam­ple we set in our dai­ly lives.

For too long, our con­scious and uncon­scious ideas and feel­ings about race and eth­nic­i­ty have dri­ven our choic­es about where we live, work and wor­ship; which schools we choose to edu­cate our chil­dren; and the friends and acquain­tances we invite into our lives. These are, of course, indi­vid­ual choic­es. But long-stand­ing pat­terns of dis­crim­i­na­tion — shaped by laws, poli­cies and prac­tices — have lim­it­ed the free­dom of whole groups of Amer­i­cans to make those choic­es. And the con­se­quences of these choic­es too often sep­a­rate us in ways that rein­force inequities and stoke fear and resent­ment. As our chil­dren watch us, they too learn to fear and resent peo­ple they see as unlike themselves.

Through our exam­ple, we can teach our chil­dren to not just tol­er­ate but also work to under­stand and con­nect with peo­ple who may be dif­fer­ent from them­selves. We can teach our chil­dren to be active builders of bridges across our divides. We can teach our chil­dren to become famil­iar with and accept the full his­to­ry of our coun­try and to under­stand that his­to­ry as a con­tin­u­al striv­ing to over­come our worst chap­ters, with much work remain­ing to tru­ly ful­fill our high­est aspi­ra­tions for oppor­tu­ni­ty, equi­ty and justice.

Per­haps most pow­er­ful­ly — and most chal­leng­ing — we can teach our chil­dren through exam­ple by choos­ing to live, work, wor­ship, befriend and learn with­in inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ties. For those of us accus­tomed to think­ing of our­selves as the major­i­ty group, and the dom­i­nant cul­ture, we can teach our chil­dren to be unafraid to become mem­bers of com­mu­ni­ties in which they are the minor­i­ty — and in set­tings in which they are not accord­ed the unearned priv­i­lege of def­er­ence and pow­er. The surest way to end fear and igno­rance is by being in com­mu­ni­ty with oth­er peo­ple and learn­ing how sim­i­lar we all are in our hopes, dreams, dis­ap­point­ments and challenges.

Those of us who are white too often sit back and leave the work to end racism, bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion to those who have been most dis­ad­van­taged by these forces. Watch­ing the footage of Nazis, mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan and oth­er white suprema­cists march­ing through the streets of Char­lottesville should call forth not only out­rage but a com­mit­ment — espe­cial­ly among those of us who are white and those of us in lead­er­ship posi­tions — to end the scourge of racism, big­otry and eth­nic hatred that stain our his­to­ry and dim our future.

What bet­ter way to act on that com­mit­ment than to teach our chil­dren to embrace the best of America’s promise? What bet­ter way to build a brighter future for all of our chil­dren, and for our coun­try, than to teach them by our exam­ple the impor­tance of stand­ing up and speak­ing out when that promise is threatened?

When the forces of hate and big­otry slith­er out from the shad­ows, strong lead­er­ship must rise to show the moral turpi­tude of their racist hatred. The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion is devot­ed to build­ing a brighter future for all of America’s chil­dren and fam­i­lies. We urge lead­ers at every lev­el to join us in work­ing to ensure equi­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty for all chil­dren — and to address the his­tor­i­cal and con­tin­u­ing obsta­cles to oppor­tu­ni­ty based on race, eth­nic­i­ty, reli­gion, immi­gra­tion sta­tus, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der identity.

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