The parents I come across want to raise children who’ll fight injustice. They take their kids to rallies. They start talking about race, gender, sexual orientation and physical ability early and often. They introduce books that explore the fight for equality. And kids do get it — they have a remarkable concern for fairness and capacity for critical thinking.
Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr
Still, when it comes to those big tests, the ones that jump out unexpectedly in the classroom or football field or at the school canteen, the ones that come in the form of an Islamophobic remark or “that’s so gay” slur or joke about one’s “token black friend”, it’s hard to know how children (or heck, even adults) will respond. Will they stick up for their marginalised peers? Will they step in even if their friends sit in uncomfortable silence? Will they be “upstanders” instead of bystanders?
Unless they’re wildly outspoken by nature, probably not without some coaching. In these stressful moments, it’s easier to hang back and say nothing. It isn’t enough for parents to say to their kids, “Don’t tolerate racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia,” and then call their work done. They need to teach them what to say in response, and how to say it. And it seems kids in 2017 will have plenty of opportunities to speak up. In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports a rise in “uncivil political discourse” in school classrooms across the country. Current events both in Australia and abroad are also impacting the conversations being had in Australian classrooms.
I spoke with Amy Hickel, the volunteer coordinator for White Nonsense Roundup, a social media task force that rallies white people to call out racism online. She and her spouse have been helping their 12-year-old daughter Lily feel empowered enough to stand up against the hurtful and damaging remarks that she hears. “In later elementary school and middle school, kids know what comments are not right,” Hickel says. “They just need to be bolstered by their parents and told they’re strong enough to say, ‘That’s not OK.'”
Here’s how to teach your kids to stand up for others:
Lily told her parents that after the US election, a few kids at her school excitedly shared what their parents were saying, things like, “They’re gonna send all those people back to Mexico and then we’ll get all of our jobs back!” At home, they talked about it. Amy says, “I asked her, ‘How did that make you feel? Does that feel right to you? Do you think anyone in your class was hurt by that comment? How would you feel if your parents were sent away?”
Children naturally understand fairness and equity — little kids are obsessed with the concept. They know when they’re facing injustice, even if they don’t yet have the words to explain it. But empathy for others is something that needs to be learned, Hickel says. And that means constantly guiding them to step into other people’s shoes. When it comes to racist, sexist or insensitive remarks, Amy tells her daughter, “You wouldn’t tolerate someone saying that to you, so why would you tolerate them saying it to someone else?”
Give Them Specific Language to Use
Even if kids have developed empathy, speaking up on the spot is just hard. They need to know what to say, and as with any skill, they need to practise it. Hickel and her spouse think of it like giving Lily a toolbox — they keep adding specific words and phrases that she can pull out on the fly if the situation arises.
For instance, if Lily hears someone say “that’s so gay” or “that’s retarded” or make a racist joke, she will often say, “Hey, what does that mean to you? Why is that funny?” — something her parents have taught her. More often then not, the person will back off and say something like, “Oh, well, whatever. I was just making a joke.” And then Lily will say, “It wasn’t very funny.” Kids can also say, “You sound like a bully,” Hickel suggests. The terminology around bullying is something they understand.
If it’s a friend who’s making the comment or jokes, the child can say, “I know you don’t mean anything hurtful when you say that, but those words can really hurt people.”
You can also role-play different scenarios with your children. Teach them to look more confident by making eye contact, using a firm tone, and most importantly, truly believing what they’re saying.
Encourage Them to Use Their Bodies, Too
Hickel points out that kids can also stand up for others with their bodies, and she tells her daughter that if someone is being teased on the bus or in the cafeteria, she can walk over and sit next to him. “Just putting your physical body in between [the victim] and the aggressor is one way to diffuse that situation,” Amy says. “Adding your body to the numbers increases the probability that an aggressor is going to back off.”
To add to the line of defence, the child can round up a couple of friends to come along. However, if the situation looks like it could escalate into physical violence, she should flag an adult.
Give Them Permission to Act
Using your voice comes with some risk, and parents should remind their kids of this. It’s always easier to stand back, to think, “I don’t really want to get involved,” to convince yourself it’s no big deal and that kids will just be kids. Acknowledge that.
Amy says she’ll always support her daughter when it comes to helping keep her friends safe, even if she gets in trouble for it at school. “We tell her, ‘It’s important that you say something, even if it’s hard, even if it doesn’t feel very good in your belly. Ultimately, you have to know that what you’re doing is important.'” Keep letting them know you’re on their side.