Ask Alexis: How Do I Raise My Kids to be Kind and Open-Minded?

Painting of a row of back patios, divided by fences
September Morning, 2008. Private collection.

Reader Rebecca sent me the following question:

“I have two boys and I live in a very conservative area. I love where I live (mostly), but I don’t like how a lot of people around here talk about people with different skin colors and religions, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. I don’t want my sons to ever talk like that. Do you have any advice for raising kind and open-minded boys in an area that isn’t always very kind and open-minded?”

Thanks for the question, Rebecca!  First, a couple of caveats.  I don’t have kids myself (yet), so I’m hesitant to give parenting advice.  In particular, I don’t know your kids, their personalities, or how they might respond in various situations, but I’ll do my best to share some general thoughts on this topic.

Second, I try very hard to keep politics out of this site, for reasons I’ve discussed here.  Unfortunately, we are living in a highly polarized climate.  People at both ends of the political spectrum seem to harbor great contempt for those with different views and lifestyles.  I think it’s important to note that one can be politically conservative without holding views that are racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-immigrant, or misogynistic.  On the flip side, people who are politically liberal can also be judgmental, closed-minded, and unkind.  So while Rebecca specifically referred to the attitudes of her conservative neighbors, I think my advice applies to confronting hateful rhetoric of any kind.

I would start by encouraging your kids to think critically about the things they hear.  If one of your sons repeats something hateful, understand that he is probably just parroting back what someone told him without giving it much thought.  Ask him why he thinks what he said is true.  Ask him questions that prompt him to see things from the point of view of the person or group being targeting by the hurtful comment.  How would he feel if someone said that about him, or about his brother, mother, or best friend?  Suggest that he ask the same kinds of questions when he hears other people make insensitive comments.

It might also help to explain that people often stereotype and fear what they do not know or understand.  For example, a person who says something hateful or irrational about gay people may have never gotten to know a gay person.  It’s easy to hold inaccurate assumptions and hateful views about people whom we rarely encounter.  I think the best way to help your kids see all kinds of people as worthy, complex humans is to make sure your kids interact with a diverse range of people.  This may be challenging if you live in a fairly homogenous area.  When your child comments on someone’s differences, consider striking up a conversation with that person so that your child doesn’t see him as someone to avoid or fear.  If you can afford to do so, travel with your kids. Take them into different towns, neighborhoods, and communities in an effort to expose them to people who look and live differently than they do.

Deep down, I believe all people want to love and be loved.  Psychologically, dividing the world into good versus bad and us versus them can give us a false sense of security or validation.  These tendencies are misguided attempts to be happy.  With emotional and spiritual maturity comes a recognition that we are all part of one big, global community, and we all have more in common than we may initially think.  Hatred does not breed true happiness.  Recognizing the humanity in others and treating all people with respect will lead to far greater peace and satisfaction.  Unfortunately, some people never reach that understanding.  But you can teach your kids that even when someone is unkind, they can respond with kindness.  Doing so may diffuse a tense situation and prompt an eye-opening conversation.  In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Readers, what suggestions do you have for Rebecca?

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