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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