In this three-part article, Puja shares with us three things we can do as parents to raise children who will stand up for change. This is Part 2.
Photo credit Hazel Hernandes
Part 2: Attitude and mindset
+ Sense of urgency
Beyond knowledge, our children need to feel that poverty, racism, sexism and other forms of social discrimination are not someone else's problems, they need to feel that these impacts them. Standing by and doing nothing, being silent, should feel uncomfortable. It is easy to justify inaction - we didn't start it and we all have a lot on our plate already.
I used to work at an organization where our vision was "One day all children will attain an excellent education". We spent a lot of time discussing what each of the words "attain", "excellent" meant until we got to "one day". "One day" made us lazy. It meant we could do a little each day and as long as we were sort of moving in the right direction, things would work out eventually. Until we changed it and said we wanted to actualize this vision in our lifetimes - in the next 50 years. Once we changed our vision to "In 50 years, all children will attain an excellent education" we made it personal and relevant to us, which ignited a fire that dramatically changed our plan of actions in the immediate future.
This is the sort of fire our children need to feel when they see injustice. Telling them, pointing out real life stories of discrimination and making these personal and relevant to them will fuel this sense of urgency.
+ Hope, and making friends with pain
At varying levels, we are all complicit in perpetuating discrimination, are biased or prejudiced and should acknowledge that we are racist, sexist, classist and so on. When we, and our children realize this, it can quickly lead to tremendous feelings of guilt or fear. The problem itself can feel overwhelming at times which can make us feel helpless and even when we try, we might fail leading to despair. We will feel extremely uncomfortable feelings - anxiety, anger, fury, sadness. We need to sit with these and allow our children to do the same - not just when you discuss hard topics.
If your child has fallen down and is in pain or is sad because the favourite teddy is lost, give them all the cuddles and love they need but at the same time do not distract, do not make it better and do not provide a happy ending. Be with them as they process the pain because they will not only learn how to do so when you are not there, but also because they will learn about hope.
They will realize that pain does not last forever, and they will know that things can get better, even if they look different after.
Since movies, books, schools and people that surround us tie everything up in a neat bow with happy endings, we can feel actively cheated when we don't get this in real life. Read to them books that have sorrow, tragedy, pain and allow them to see the hope and joy within these.
+ Curiosity driven, non-binary mindset
Good/bad, hero/villain, rich/poor, victim/saviour - these binary tropes are embedded not only in most books, movies and cartoons that our kids love but also in our institutions. These are thrilling dynamics that are easy to sell and allow us to feel good about ourselves (we will always identify with the heroes).
This black-and-white thinking is inherently divisive. Every "us" needs a "them". We have an evolutionary desire to protect "us" which also makes it easier to hurt or care less about "them".
The Mumbai attacks, more than a decade later, still haunt me in which less than 200 people lost their lives, but I can go for months without thinking about the loss after loss in the ongoing Syrian war. We need to widen "us" beyond physical proximity, personal similarities and genetics. Our heroes can do no harm - they are courageous and fearless. When they make a mistake, it is an out of character blip. On the other hand, our villains are victims of their own laziness, worthlessness, and *individual* behaviour. Our tendency is always to identify with the protagonist, the hero, who is for the most part, one dimensional. We need our children to refuse to buy in to this narrative and we can unlearn this for ourselves.
We need to talk and read to them about our flawed heroes (from Lee Kuan Yew to Malala Yousafzai to the popular older kid in school), about victims who have agency and power, and constantly redefine "us".
For example, when siblings fight, help them go from 'me vs him' to 'us brothers'; help 'us brothers' go to 'us children' when at the playground and so forth. One key ingredient to do this is curiosity - which helps override fear and hate.
Curiosity about (not simply exposure to) people who don't look like us, act like us or live near us and being open to learning from them which makes us doubt ourselves and might prove us wrong is crucial.
Thankfully, kids are inherently curious. We need to ensure that they stay that way.
Photo Credit: Uma Nathan
About the author:
Puja Bhojnagarwala is a flawed human being who has made innumerable mistakes and continues to do so. She is the mother of two children, is in an inter-racial marriage, is wealthy, lives in a safe country that grants her some paid parental leave and works at a company that allows her to take extended unpaid leave. She has not been offered several opportunities because of her gender or passport, has been shamed and ridiculed for looking a certain way / not speaking in certain accent(s) / for her choice in food, suffers from bouts of depression and will never forget the first overt racist attack.
In a nutshell, she is extremely privileged. She actively works to combat all forms of discrimination, but will fight tooth and nail against sexism, leading her to receive the former (and potentially current) title of the black sheep of the family. She knows it is a fallacy, but still aspires to “have it all”.
Authors Note: This article is inspired by not only my personal experiences and work, but also by hundreds of authors and speakers who have led me to be here. Special gratitude for Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like and Ashia Ray, Raising Luminaries: Books for Littles whose works have immensely influenced this article. This article captures some (not all) concepts - there are several that have not been included.