Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

What Can I Do About Impressionable Children?

‘How Would He Feel?’

A woman's young son tells a racist "joke" at dinner that he had heard on the playground earlier that day. "I immediately discussed with him how inappropriate it was. I asked him to put himself in the place of the person in the 'joke.' How would he feel? I discussed with him the feeling of empathy."

A New Jersey woman writes: "My young daughter wrapped a towel around her head and said she wanted to be a terrorist for Halloween — 'like that man down the street.'" The man is a Sikh who wears a turban for religious reasons. The woman asks, "What do I tell my daughter?"

Focus on empathy. When a child says or does something that reflects biases or embraces stereotypes, point it out: "What makes that 'joke' funny?" Guide the conversation toward empathy and respect: "How do you think our neighbor would feel if he heard you call him a terrorist?"

Expand horizons. Look critically at how your child defines "normal." Help to expand the definition: "Our neighbor is a Sikh, not a terrorist. Let's learn about his religion." Create opportunities for children to spend time with and learn about people who are different from themselves.

Prepare for the predictable. Every year, Halloween becomes a magnet for stereotypes. Children and adults dress as "psychos" or "bums," perpetuating biased representations of people with mental illness or people who are homeless. Others wear masks steeped in stereotypical features or misrepresentations. Seek costumes that don't embrace stereotypes. Have fun on the holiday without turning it into an exercise in bigotry and bias.

Be a role model. If parents treat people unfairly based on differences, children likely will repeat what they see. Be conscious of your own dealings with others.