I overheard my daughter tell a derogatory ethnic joke to her friends. Doesn't she realize what she's doing is wrong?
A. She probably does-but at your daughter's age, the pull of friends often is stronger than the pull of the Holy Spirit. However, learning how to value people's differences is an extremely important lesson for today's children. By 2025, when your child's a young adult, 52 percent of preschoolers will be white, 25 percent Hispanic, 16 percent African American, and 7 percent Asian and Pacific Islander. Now is the time your daughter should be developing Jesus-pleasing attitudes toward people of different cultures, languages, skin colors, gender, and body types.
Start by assessing the amount of exposure your daughter has to people who are different. If you live in a homogenous neighborhood, she may automatically accept assumptions about them because she's never known anything to contradict them. As a family, talk about what makes a stereotype. Why is it so difficult to break one down? Ask your daughter how she'd feel if others stereotyped her, for example assuming she'd never be good at math because she's a girl? Or if she stood up for people who are different, what might be the personal consequences?
Ask these same questions of yourself. This issue will not take care of itself. It requires hard work to lessen the pain both our children and we inflict on those who don't fit into our safe categories. Here are three things other families have done. None is easy, but breaking down prejudices never is.
Make friends with a family ethnically different but economically similar to yours. Both sets of adults should talk over what you want to have happen. Visit each other's church, especially if each congregation is predominately a different color or ethnic group. At lunch talk about what happened and how you and your children felt.
"Adopt" a soldier from a different ethnic group. Pray for him or her daily. Take turns sending short e-mails. Don't make a big deal about color. Instead, emphasize how this person is serving the country we love and is helping to make the world a better place. Bottom line: "Our family owes this person our support and gratitude."
Befriend an elderly person who speaks English as a second language. Encourage your daughter to think of questions that will stimulate this person to tell the stories of his or her background.
Stanley, an elderly Polish man with a heavy accent and a WWII prisoner identification number tattooed to his arm, was our neighbor. He never talked about his experiences until another neighbor's son, eight-year-old Kenneth, became his friend. Kenneth would ask, "What does that tattoo mean? Did you try to run away? Did you see friends die?"
"Yes," Stanley replied as his eyes filled with tears. "Prisoners were forced to work on an electric power line. I got down from my pole for a minute seconds before an electrical surge hit. All my friends were electrocuted."
Kenneth, I suspect, never will make fun of an old person or a person with a heavy accent. By learning their names and their stories, by seeing firsthand how wrong generalizations are about friends who are different: This is the most powerful inoculation against prejudice.
Marlene LeFever is Director of Educational Ministries for Cook Communication and the author of Creative Teaching Methods (Cook).
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.