We can’t defeat the hatefulness of our times if we teach children intolerance and distrust
In my fifteen years as a parent educator facilitating parenting workshops, I have been awestruck by the similarity in the goals that parents have for their children. Our workshop participants represent the wide diversity of Indian culture – different religions, class, caste, languages, food preferences, dress. Despite these differences, they always have one common vision – to raise their children to be “compassionate and caring human beings”, in nurturing and peaceful environments.
All parents have dreams for their children to feel safe, to belong, to be respected and to be treated with consideration, whether at home, in school or by the larger society. In these workshops, parents have shared the pain they have felt when their children have been bullied, name-called, stigmatised or ostracised by their peers, or even by their teachers and caregivers.
These sentiments resonate deeply for me, more so in the challenging times we now face. The question that keeps me awake at night is this – Despite a shared vision amongst parents, who constitute a significantly large proportion of our society, to have peaceful and caring communities, why are we are living through a meteoric rise in hate and insensitivity? Something just does not add up.
I thought a good place to start seeking answers was by examining my own actions as a parent and asking myself some hard questions: Am I showing my children – through my thoughts, words and actions – what it means to be inclusive, or am I unknowingly sowing in them the seeds of hate and prejudice?
Where it begins
Children come into this world with no prejudice. They do not have a concept of caste, religion, skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or other divides. A toddler is only discriminating about who is familiar and therefore, safe. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: when do children start behaving differently towards different people – respecting some and showing distrust or disdain towards some others?
I attended a workshop of school principals and teachers, in which participants expressed distress over the rising incidents of prejudice in their schools, where children as young as four years of age have refused to befriend classmates of a different religion, or made hurtful statements about another child’s culture, dress, religion, eating habits or caste. Or how a child may refuse to sit, eat or work together with certain children. In her book, Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum has documented the rise of such incidents even in elite schools that embrace a liberal pedagogy, and the helplessness she and other Muslim families experience when watching their children being pushed out of secular education.
These experiences jolted me into thinking about my own biases and their influence on my children. My children may have picked up prejudices from my words, tone or body language. I started to make a list of statements I have heard, beginning from my childhood, through college, at work and within my family and peer groups. To list a few:
“One can’t trust them.”
“They are polluted because they eat animals.”
“She will find it hard to get married because she is so dark.”
“Whatever you do, please don’t marry a person from that particular religion or caste.”
“Homosexuality will break down our cultural values.”
I recalled incidences where I have sat silently at gatherings of family and friends where many bigoted statements were made. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silences of our friends”. I realised that I too have been guilty of not speaking out, of joining in the laughter at insensitive jokes.
Without even being conscious of it, we participate in building an environment of intolerance. We are hardly aware that this could be the narrative for anyone who is the “other.” Will I wake up and speak out only when I, or someone close to me, is the victim?
Change is possible
Becoming aware of our biases and stereotypes requires not just an honest examination of ourselves but also deep compassion when understanding their origins. Prejudice comes from a place of hurt, anger, fear or ignorance. At times, it is passed from generation to generation because of traumatic experiences like the Partition, riots or caste conflict. Coming from this place of hurt, we believe we are protecting our children by our warnings. It’s ironic that we want to keep our children safe without realising that safety is not built by spreading distrust and divisiveness. Is there a way past such inter-generational pain and anger?
Although few, there are efforts on the part of individuals, families and countries to work towards reconciliation. In S Rashid’s book A Time of Madness: A Memoir of Partition, the author recalls his travels from Pakistan to Jalandhar to discover his roots. On his journey, he comes across the descendants of those who had killed his family during the Partition, now living in the same neighbourhood. The book details his personal journey from a traumatised inherited past to a place of understanding and forgiveness.
In these troubled times, it’s easy to take the path of countering hate with hate. Of blaming and shaming. But are we taking ownership of our role in the world we create? The journey must begin from within.
By asking myself these questions, I now recognise the disconnect between my vision of a peaceful world and my day-to-day actions. I own its damage. I also see the power within me and my fellow parents to raise young people who will build an inclusive and safe world.