The little boy wandered over to where my 6-year old was playing basketball and – judging by the wobbly gait – I guessed he was just shy of two years old. He saw a ball, and he wanted to play.
That afternoon, my son was not interested in helping this boy. He was frustrated that his flow had been interrupted: determined to take practice shot after practice shot, this little one was only impeding his progress. My son was unmoved by my pleas to be kind and to share. Instead, his voice grew whinier, and frankly, brattier.
“Come here,” I called, asking my son to join me on the park bench where I sat watching. I told him how he used to do the same things when he was little. I tried to inspire him to be a mentor for a moment. He was having none of it.
“He’s just getting in the way!” he whined. “He doesn’t even speak our language!” he yelled.
Whoa. Occasionally in parenting there are those record-stop moments you know are critical. This certainly felt like one of them. I wanted to respond appropriately. To demonstrate that I had no tolerance for disrespect and ignorance, while also teaching him the importance of understanding and acceptance.
At six years old, was my son old enough to understand how wrong his statement was? Has he already, in just six short years, led such a sheltered existence that the only language that feels right to him is his own?
Or was I projecting my own fears about what’s been happening in society lately onto him? Donald Trump says he wants to build a wall, and casually calls Americans whose heritage is not Anglo Saxon “Mexican” or “Afghan” in a derogatory tone, as if it’s wrong to be anything other than what he is.
Debates rage over whether we should allow refugees to live in our midst. Generally people agree that refugees deserve help, but agreement breaks down though when it comes to providing that help in our own backyard. It’s human nature to fear what we don’t know, but we’ve seen all too often lately how that fear can turn ugly, even deadly.
I want my sons to replace fear with curiosity. To greet the unknown with wonder, and with a desire to explore and understand.
“Imagine how that boy must feel,” I said as we walked home from the park that day. “How scary it must be to not speak the same language that everyone around you is speaking,” I said. “Imagine if you went to a different country, where no one around you spoke English. Would you feel scared? Wouldn’t you be glad if someone was nice to you, and stopped to help you?” My son nodded in thoughtful agreement.
We went on to talk a bit about how everyone in this country is originally from someplace else. Everyone’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s father or mother arrived here from another country, bringing with them the cultures, values and social norms of another place.
It’s hard to feel like we can effect much individual change when the news keeps reporting such large-scale bad. But there are things we can do as parents to help our kids “be the change,” as the old adage goes. We can create situations in which our kids encounter people and beliefs that differ from their own. We can venture into neighborhoods that look nothing like our own, where maybe we are the ones who look different from everyone else. We can attend a religious service for a faith that is different from our own. And, when it’s over, talk to our kids about what they experienced; ask them how it was different from the services they regularly attend, but also – and perhaps more importantly – how it was similar.
When we place ourselves and our children in these situations, we can model curious and accepting behavior. We can ask questions and show empathy. And hopefully, we can get to a place where differences are embraced for the richness they bring to our lives and our society.