Thursday, July 2, 2020

Raising Children Without Racism: Simultaneous Saint and Sinner

In the previous post, I talked about how our brains create categories for concepts (including people). The more examples each of these categories have, the more comfortable we are around people who look, talk, or behave differently. This is a crucial first step in preventing unintended racism in children.

Racism comes out of how we describe and understand people we have placed in a group different from our own. The problem is we see differences and use those differences to separate. There is no reason why we can’t teach children to see differences, to learn about differences, to honor differences, and to welcome differences into the group in which they see themselves. In other words, we should watch to be sure our children are not creating an “in” group and an “out” group. We want our children to find ways to include more people in their group.
The essential step is to teach children how to welcome others into their circle of friends is not to teach them to ignore differences. But to teach them how to find commonalities amidst the differences.
First, we recognize and teach that we are all sinners standing in need of a Savior. Second, we accept and teach that we are all made righteous through our Savior’s death and resurrection. As Christians, we do not divide into the “in” group (saints) and the “out” group (sinners.) We are simultaneously members of both groups.

I believe in/out-group formation happens in the light of two equally damaging situations:

I. Law without Grace

As a longtime teacher in Lutheran schools, I can attest that creating an in/out-group does not have skin color or ethnicity as a prerequisite. A room full of children who all look the same will find reasons for some people to be relegated to the “out” group. I saw children so designated because they were not wearing the right color shirt or sat in the wrong chair. The difference in this kind of “out” is that shirt color, or seats can be changed, whereas skin color and culture do not change. This latter kind of “out” groups are exquisitely damaging because they exert power and leave children feeling helpless to improve the situation.

Jane Elliott showed this in her Blue Eyes Brown Eyes Exercise, where she convinced brown-eyed children that their group was better than blue-eyed children. The results were quick and quite disturbing. No one had to teach these children to hate. This was accomplished by using law without grace. She taught them unfair rules, modeled in/out behavior, and neglected to teach them how to love.

I have seen elite “in” groups form in classrooms where following rules and completing perfect schoolwork are the most important things. This creates a group of successful children who feel it is justified to look down on someone less successful. They begin to believe that they are good enough and smart enough to save themselves. They begin to fear their failures and instead direct that fear to those in the “out” group.

II. Grace without Law

Likewise, children who are rarely expected to face their sin or to atone for their actions will also create their own little happy “in” group. They do not see their sin and consequently are more aware of the sins of those around them. The people in the “in” group behave according to seeming unwritten rules, who like the same things, who dress in the same way, etc. These people must be good, and others must be bad. If you think your child has never believed they have no sin, stop into any early childhood classroom and ask for sinners to raise their hands. Then watch the children point to each other. All of those children have been disciplined, but something is missing, so they feel safer denying their sin.

Grace and Law Together

When we use grace and law together, we raise children who do not deny their sin, nor wallow helplessly in shame. We teach children to be accountable for their actions, to repent of their wrongs sincerely, and to care for others by working to atone for their sin. We show them it is safe to admit to mistakes because our mistakes will not put us permanently into the “sinner” group. Children who learn to understand their sin, apologize, and ask for forgiveness will also accept forgiveness. More importantly, they will be able to forgive themselves.

If I can’t forgive myself, then I will do anything to escape my sin. If I create a cozy “in” group that can follow a random set of rules, then I can fool myself into thinking I am good, and the sin I see belongs to others. The sin belongs to the “out” group. Once this happens, I have even more justification for staying away from this group.

The second blessing of learning repentance and forgiveness is that your child will also learn mercy and empathy. A child with empathy can imagine themselves in a fellow sinner’s shoes and is more likely to apply mercy and forgive. When children empathize with each other, when they understand that we are all saint and sinner, in need of and blessed by forgiveness, the “in” group fades away into a blessed family of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the importance of an attitude of forgiveness. David Brooks explains it in this way: “Real forgiveness is rigorous. It balances accountability with mercy and compassion. The person with a forgiving attitude expects sin, empathizes with sin, and is slow to think him – or herself superior to the one who has done the sinning.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Sermon circa 1948) (David Brooks, The Second Mountain ©2019)

Accountability without forgiveness and forgiveness without accountability; both teach children to be cruel. Their cruelty comes from trying to make sense of a world that does not balance law with grace.

When we help our children to understand the reality of sin and the joy of God’s mercy and grace, we are making the in/out-group phenomenon much less likely. We are also actively, and with the help of the Spirit, teaching our children to avoid racism.

Concordia Publishing House

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Raising Children Without Racism: Teaching about Differences

We often hear the adage that children learn to hate. While it is true that children will learn to hate if it is modeled for them, this is not the only way to learn racism.

Racism is sin, and we are hardwired to sin; children are no exception. Because of this, it is not enough to refrain from teaching our children to hate. We must actively teach them to love and accept others.

An infant is born able to focus on the face of the person who holds him. The pattern of eyes, nose, and mouth is one of the first an infant learns to recognize. This kind of pattern learning is so strong that as adults, we can still see faces in things that are not human.

 The brain sees a possible face, compares it to previously seen faces, and makes a quick decision. As long as toddlers see more human faces than sink faces, they will make a correct determination.

This learning technique of creating a category and deciding what does or does not fit is used by the brain for things other than learning. It can also be a shortcut to determine if an unfamiliar face is safe. If a child sees only faces that look like hers, it is more likely that a strange face will cause small anxiety. If children see many different faces, then their category for faces will be large and varied.

With many examples in the category, new faces will be more readily accepted.

This shortcut is called a schema. Schemas help us to think quickly, to learn, and to problem-solve. But, they can also get us into trouble. Schemas can make us assume things that are may not be true. For instance, fill in the missing words in this sentence:

It is important for young ch ______ to have plenty of  s _________ and good  f_________ for healthy growth. 

Your brain uses its schemas to fill in these words. It pays attention to the grammar of the sentence and uses the beginning letter clues to identify the right categories. You likely filled in these spaces using words such as “children,” “sunshine,” and “food.”

However, this is a line of text from a paragraph about raising chickens. “Sunshine” is a correct word, but the first and last blanks are “chicks” and “feed.”  Schemas serve as shortcuts, but sometimes shortcuts point us in the wrong direction. If your brain had more categories that fit the term "healthy growth" it might come up with different answers.

Schema thinking is a gift from God because it helps us to understand things and make quick decisions. However, like everything else in our world, sin creeps in and turns something helpful into a potential for sin.

If children have a small number of schemas, if their categories have few examples, they will be limited in what they are comfortable with, think about, or like. Children who do more, see more, and learn more will have many schemas full of examples.

Think about what kinds of faces your children have seen over their lifetimes. Do they see faces with skin color or eyes different from their own? As a parent, think about how you can increase their exposure.

Literature- The photographs and characters in books have a profound effect on schema development because photos provide more examples for the categories of things that make up schemas. And stories show children how different people work together. Seek out books, movies, video games and other toys that feature people who are different. If your child’s everyday world includes people who look different, speak a different language, or accomplish things in different ways (e.g., moving in a wheelchair), these differences will become familiar. Achieving this goal takes work. You cannot let the world do this for you. It’s not enough to notice a different character; your goal must be to make differences familiar.

Media – One of the biggest dangers of a lack of experience with people who are different is when someone different gets attention in the media for a bad action. As you seek to fill the life of your children with exposure to different people, it is essential to point out the variety within each group. The media tends to focus on wrong actions because that is what gets our attention. Look for ways to find things to admire in people, so your children become focused on looking for the good.

It is equally important to talk about the power of forgiveness. Children tend to define an individual based on one wrong action – even though they do not apply that standard to themselves. Children who have been forgiven and have been taught to forgive will be less likely to judge an entire group of people by the actions of a few.

Life- Literature and media have a significant influence on our children, but not as significant as the way a family lives from day-to-day. How often do you seek out new experiences with new people? Everything from trying new food, attending a cultural celebration, enjoying music, and worshiping at a church where you do not look like most of the people are all experiences that broaden those schemas. The goal is not to ignore your family’s culture but to appreciate it more when you realize that each family has their likes, rituals, and traditions.

In my previous post, I mentioned that an unspoken truth is an untaught truth. This idea applies beautifully to teaching our children about racism. We do not do our children any favors by hoping they will not see differences. Their brains are hardwired to make a note of differences and to assign value to those categories. We need to teach children about differences and how to value those who look different, like different things, and celebrate in different ways.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Genesis 1:26a

We do not know if Adam and Eve had dark skin and black curly hair or light skin and blue eyes. We do know that God made all of His children in His image. And just like Adam and Eve did not have to teach their son Cain to hate, we know that sin has found its way into our families. Through the power of God’s Word and the work of the Spirit, we can teach our children about fellow children of God.
This Dr. Lawrence Chatters, the Vice President for Student Affairs at Midlands University. We were classmates in graduate school and I have learned much from his wisdom. Here is an interview with him on the topic of children and racism.

Concordia Publishing House

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Raising Children Without Racism: Talking about Violence

How do we talk with our children about brutality, protest, and violence without leaving them afraid? Because media is everywhere, it exposes our children to news about scary things at younger ages than is likely appropriate. We cannot raise our children in a bubble safe from frightening truth about sin and danger in our world. Because our faith speaks to these issues, it is best to vaccinate our children rather than shelter them. When we vaccinate children in this way, we give them a small exposure with a helpful discussion giving them learning to use in future exposures to confusing information. Faith discussions will help our children see alarming situations through God's eyes and His will for us.

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. 
Hebrews 10:39

We have the sure hope that Christ's death and resurrection have brought us into the safety of God's family. Because of this, we can persevere in the face of danger – our faith and our salvation are not at risk. 

As parents, one thing for us to remember is that an unspoken truth is an untaught truth. 

As difficult as these conversations are, if we do not indulge in them, we leave our children to find truth elsewhere. This result is not a chance we want to take. We can also remember that difficult topics begin as short conversations that grow with the child. We can concentrate on immediate concerns and address other issues in future discussions. 

Below are some possible topics for conversation. Remember to ask for and listen to your children's concerns and address what is on their mind. Let their thoughts and questions be the guide.

Safety When children see violence on media, they can usually tell when it is fake and when it is real. They cannot always tell if the violence they see on a video clip could happen to them. Part of your reassurance is to fill in that information. If you are discussing the protests that turned violent, let them know if they are happening close or far away. Point out what actions keep people safe. Remind them that even when we see bad things in our world, we know that God created a good world and that He cares about the safety of His children. 

Empathize  Teaching empathy for a situation is not about making excuses for sinful behavior. Instead, it is about understanding another person's perspective. When children see people doing bad things, it is helpful to go beyond the action to discuss what may be the cause. If children see violence but only hear that violence is wrong without an explanation for why it happens, they might make a false leap of judgment and be concerned that this violence could happen to them. They are also worried about their own intense emotions. Talk about what led up to the violence, about what has made people afraid or angry. This can be done in a way that does not condone or promote violence. A good discussion about emotions will only positively serve your children as they learn to regulate their strong feelings. There are good Bible stories to share about how God kept people safe amid violence. Look at Joshua 2 and the story of Rahab and the spies, for example.

Read   Check with your child's teacher or with your local library to find good books to read on segregation. Reading stories will help your child to see how the fear and anger build up over time. An excellent place to start is a picture book: The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Cole. Don't be afraid to cry when you read about what happened to Ruby Bridges and how she responded. I cry. Every. Time. 

Positive  While it is easy to focus on the negative, primarily when it floods social media, it is good to seek out the positive stories. Help your children to see what people are doing to make things better by repairing relationships and correcting past wrongs. 

Pray  Of course, we should pray for an end to violence, for the safety of our family, and to thank God for His protection. God instructs us to pray for our enemies, too. The protestors are certainly not our enemies (thinking that way is part of the problem), but the sin of violence is everyone's enemy. We can pray for God to help all of us when we are hurt or angry. We can pray for all people, law enforcement, and protestors, who are confused into violent actions.

I am collecting some tools for future posts on talking with children about issues concerning race. Just like talking with children about violence, learning about the sin of racism is not conducive to one or two big lessons. It is more effective to teach through many, many discussions over your child's lifetime. These discussions happen best in the light of faith. Talking about sin is never easy. When we face sin, when we understand our part in it, we find God's mercy. 

This is a truth that needs to be endlessly spoken.

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. I Corinthians 14:33a

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Family Faith Sharing Activity: Seeing the World in a New Way

Achi is a simple strategy game that comes to us from Ghana. It is tic-tac-toe with a twist and makes for a great family game.

When I taught this game to my kindergarten students, I remember watching as they discovered the need not only to pay attention to their strategy but also to mine. They were sure to lose unless they stopped me from making three-in-a-row. This revelation helped them to see the game in a new way.

When the Spirit, promised by Jesus, descended on the disciples during Pentecost, the disciples were able to see the world in a new way. They now saw each person as someone needing to hear the Good  News.

Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can see our relationship with God in a new way. The Pentecost story reminds us of the Great Commission. Just as the disciples, we are to go and make disciples. We do this in our families, in our church, and our communities. We are blessed to be a part of God’s work.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Grieving the Semester That Wasn’t

If your children do not seem to “be themselves” lately, it is wise to consider they might be grieving.

You would think that because God gave us separate emotions to use on different occasions that the brain would be able to choose the right emotion for the job.

We might think that – but we would be wrong.

My theory may not be official, but I imagine the brain keeps emotion in a sack, and sometimes when it doesn’t know which emotion is correct, it picks a random one and applies it. This phenomenon is especially real for children who are beginners in the business of feelings. Grief may not always look like grief.

For parents, it is a good idea to frequently make a check on the emotional expressions of your children to see if there is a hidden emotion.  For instance, the school year has ended. While this means family members no longer have to fight for computer time, and parents no longer need to worry over lessons, it still does not feel like summer vacation.

This year did not have the usual routine that helps school-aged children to bring closure to the year. Your child may not have mentioned missed field trips, yearbook signings, or special events that typically replace the grief of change with good memories. And your child does not need to be graduating to feel grief over what was lost. The brain knows that some part of the end-of-year routine is missing, creating sadness and anxiety. The brain does not ignore grief, and it doesn't always understand what to do with it.

Grief is a reasonably unfamiliar emotion for many children. If they have not experienced the loss of a family member or a pet, they might not recognize grief over losing end-of-year activities. And while this kind of grief is not as intense as a family loss, it is there none-the-less.

Because your child may not recognize this loss, this may impact behavior in much the same way as anxiety. In other words, it may not look like grief.

Here are three things that you can do with your child if you suspect that grief is lurking behind unexpected or hard-to-change behavior.

Sit in grace. While the impulse may be to immediately correct the behavior, this is a perfect opportunity to spend some time in grace mode. Some small things ask for empathy and reframing.

“I wonder if you are feeling sad about missing the end of the school year? I think your teacher and your classmates feel the same way. What can you do to help yourself feel better?

Do you see what we did there? This response correctly identifies the feelings of grief and points the child in the right direction for regulating -- or dealing with -- those feelings.

Wait a bit. Some behaviors cannot you cannot ignore, but most can wait until after a cooling-off period. Allow your child some time to calm down and find his or her sadness. Talk with your child about grief before applying a consequence. Often, once children realize the emotion that caused the behavior, they no longer wish to repeat the behavior. If it is a persistent behavior, understanding the "why" behind it will help your child find a better way to express feelings.

Make connections: When children experience a new emotion, they lack an understanding of how to regulate it. Even if your child denies that he or she is sad about the end of the year, it doesn’t hurt to make that connection so they can gradually learn how to identify emotions and how to use them more effectively. Identify grief as the reason for the behavior. Say it aloud and allow your child to talk about it and about what can be done.

It is a healthy product of grief to do something to remember what was lost, such as communicate with a friend or write a letter to the teacher.  An effective way to explain this is to point out the difference between dealing with sadness and anger and doing things that make others sad or angry. 

We want our children to learn they can control their behavior in nearly any emotional state. Once they can do this, their emotions begin to help them understand what has happened instead of possibly working  against their better interests.

The LORD is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18

God in His providence gave us emotions to help us learn, to help us make decisions, and to help us live and work with each other. Emotions also help us to comprehend new experiences, overwhelming experiences, and unwelcome ones. It is a gift to be able to help your children to understand and use emotions. It is a task with which God will gladly help. He cares about your emotions, too.