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The Focused Student: Teaching children about diversity and social justice

Even identical twins are imperfectly alike. At first glance they look very similar, but those who know them see the differences.

Ironically, the greatest similarities are often in the things least seen. What we as humans share, universally, are not only certain physical parts but also an array of emotional wants and needs. We all want to be known, recognized, appreciated, loved, cared for, understood and respected.

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It is easy to teach children about what can be seen; it is very challenging to convey to them the immense significance of respecting and caring for that which can’t be seen. Any adult who has spent time supervising kids on a playground has faced the task of soothing hurt feelings, putting an end to bullying, or hearing taunts based on a child’s disabilities, differences in appearance, racial or religious group, sex or socioeconomic status.

It is important that we, as adults, understand where this comes from. Sometimes, if we’re honest, it starts at home. Words can convey an adult’s biases, recognized or not, and giving them voice is giving your child permission to take the same attitude and action to school.

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Watch closely, however, and you will see that more often than not the genesis of bullying or prejudicial taunts lies in a child’s need to go along in order to belong. Children tend to coalesce into social groups, the dynamics of which are complex. There are the “good” kids and the “bad” kids, the haves and have-nots, the “brains” and the “goof offs.” Think of these as temporary tribes and you’ll have the basis for understanding what’s going on.

The easiest tribal marker is appearance, which is why the lines of division are often drawn based on racial or cultural traits that have a physical expression. Often, each “tribe” has what in today’s terms is called an “influencer.” Those seeking admission to the tribe must please the influencer, so they do as he or she does, whether it’s adopting a certain hairstyle, clothing or prejudice toward those who are “the other.”

Many have observed that children, and teenagers in particular, will behave as a group in ways that none of them individually would pursue. Fearful of being cast out from the tribe, they go along even when they know that a given behavior is wrong, inappropriate, dangerous or hurtful to others. I’ve seen far too many lives of “good” kids altered forever simply because they went along in order to belong, only to be involved in an action that resulted in injury, legal problems or even death.

What can and should you as a parent do? First, examine your own actions. Are you providing a model that is free of prejudice, racial animosity and bias? Keep in mind that you are under constant observation by your child. Even seemingly casual remarks can be interpreted — or misinterpreted — as permission to disrespect others based on some trait other than who they are as a person.

Second, work with your child from an early age to instill in them the importance of “looking inside” to see who each person is, without regard to their exterior characteristics.

Third, talk about the idea that we all want to belong, and how each person has the power to be inclusive as well as empathetic. Encourage your child to be a leader by thinking for him/herself, rejecting bullying or abusive behaviors, and being proactive in showing care and concern for others.

Finally, encourage discussions about prejudices, stereotyping and generalizations. Talk about the importance of trying to really understand each person, rather than stereotyping them. The child your kid says is always in trouble at school could have one parent working multiple jobs to put food on the table and may simply be looking for attention.

We all can and should play an active role in this non-academic education. If we don’t, the result will inevitably be ugly, hurtful incidents that diminish those involved and the schools and communities of which they are a part.

Robert Frank is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at frank@hillsideforsuccess.org.

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