Raising a Child Who Respects Difference

September 5, 2014

I’m playing The Game of Life with two wriggly 6-year-olds, my daughter, Tess, and her buddy Matthew. We’re motoring along the board in our little plastic roadsters, and Tess arrives at the space that says “Get Married!” This is where you’re supposed to add a spouse to the passenger seat. A blue peg stands for a husband, pink means a wife. Tess considers for a moment — and chooses pink.

We live in Massachusetts, I should explain, where gay marriage is legal, a number of our kids’ friends have two moms, and our grade schools sponsor rainbow-y floats for the local Pride Parade. Around here, most kids don’t question the fact that you can marry a girl or a boy. The values my husband and I teach, the friends we have, the fact that we attended the joyful weddings of Barbara and Kristen, Annie and Mary — all of it has created a child in whom tolerance shines like the sun in July.

Pop! That’s the sound of my politically correct balloon bursting. A mere five days later, my 9-year-old, Will, storms home upset because a kid in class has been teasing him like crazy. My husband and I have been trying to manage this, but now the boys are at a tipping point. The kid called Will some choice swear words. “I wanted to say the F-word right back to him!” Will yells, tears now streaming. “And I know it’s not right, but I really wanted to say the N-word too!”

The N-word. The sick ugliness of it. I had no idea he knew the word. Dear God, where did this come from? I take a deep breath and then start the damage control. But I’m dying inside.

So there you go, two stories from one American family. Maybe they mirror yours in ways that make you nod or wince or both? I don’t care if you’re a white mom from Richmond, Virginia, explaining to your son why a Confederate flag won’t fly on your lawn even though his uncle flies one, or a Puerto Rican abuelain the Bronx showing her grandson how to be more accepting of new Dominican immigrants — we all have something to learn about teaching kids to respect people of different races, cultures, and lifestyles.

Use my family as an example. What did we do wrong? What did we do right? And how, day in and day out, should we teach our children tolerance, especially in the Age of Obama?