Q. I have primary custody of my two children, but the kids spend school holidays and most of the summer with my ex-husband. They have a good relationship with their dad and I never say anything negative about him. I do worry about him using racial slurs and speaking negatively about different religious or cultural groups in front of our kids. His parents are also intolerant of those who are different from them. I’m concerned that my ex-husband’s prejudiced behavior will influence our children and they will become intolerant of others as well. How can I prevent this negative behavior in our kids?
A. There is still a lot of prejudice and intolerance in the world, but our societal pendulum for intolerance/tolerance is swinging in the direction of tolerance, and beyond tolerance to inclusion. People of many different groups are demanding to be treated equally and fairly. You are to be commended for working with your children to be inclusive. I think your work will pay off and I suspect your kids will be able to recognize your ex-husband’s prejudiced statements as irrational. I’ll offer the following suggestions:
1. Talk with your children about their unique and special traits; help them feel good about themselves. Kids who feel good about themselves are less likely to be prejudiced and to see that others are also unique and special.
2. Look for and provide opportunities for your kids to interact with people who are different from them. Examples might be volunteering with the elderly, the homeless, the disabled, groups of another culture, etc.
3. Help your children develop caring and empathetic qualities. Kids who are caring and empathetic toward others are not likely to be prejudiced.
4. Watch television with your children on a regular basis and if someone on TV is discriminated against or demonstrates intolerance for someone who is different from him or her, discuss it. Television provides many examples of prejudice and bias in the world.
5. Encourage your children to think for themselves. When one of them says something like, “Dad thinks…” respond with, “What do you think about this?” Ask questions to clarify how they are thinking. Let them know that you expect them to think for themselves.
Children are not born prejudiced and base value on their own view of the world until someone teaches them otherwise. Continue to talk with your kids about how we are all different in many ways, with skin color being only one of these many differences, and that their behavior and actions are much more important than differences.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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