In the same way that children learn prejudice, they can unlearn it.
Many years ago, I was at a Balinese shadow puppet performance at the Smithsonian. We were all sitting on the floor. A nearby child noticed that one of the male performers was wearing a skirt. The child was a young boy, probably about seven years old. He and I had worked up a rapport, having talked about the event. It was a pretty exciting show. All the performers were wearing long flowing clothes in rich fabrics. The headdresses alone were pretty off the charts, with all the gold and wires and wiggling bits.
The child looked at me and he said “A man wearing a skirt? That’s weird!” This child wasn’t even my child and yet I felt an obligation to help. I said that women couldn’t even wear pants just 50 years ago, and in Biblical times nobody wore pants. What is normal now isn’t always normal. Normal changes. Plus, there is also the idea of men wearing kilts in Scotland.
It was awesome to watch his head expand. His limited understanding of the world just got bigger.
I also know a child who saw a spider outside and it attempted to kill it. I pointed out that the spider was supposed to be outside. Outside is the home of spiders and so it is okay to leave it alone. She looked at me funny, but then she understood. She had learned somewhere else that spiders were bad and the spiders should be killed but I taught her otherwise. If they are outside don’t kill them.
Prejudices are simply limited understandings. They are simply the result of not having enough information.
This is how all of us learned what we learned. We were given just enough information to get us going, and then left to figure out the rest. Hopefully we fill in the rest with good stuff. If we don’t, it is up to teachers to help us out. Teachers come in all varieties. You can be a teacher, and you don’t even need a certificate. If you come across someone with a limited understanding, it is important to teach them a different way of thinking, to fill in the gaps.
I have a friend who is white. She was walking with a little girl who also was white, whom she had just met. The little girl told her a story about someone in school who was mean to her. That someone happened to be black. The girl generalized and said “Black people are so mean.”
My friend was very upset by this and told her about her nephew who is half black and said not all black people are mean. She was a bit distraught about this whole exchange hours later. She thought it was tragic. She couldn’t believe that prejudice still exists these days.
It wasn’t tragic. It was an important moment to teach this child to see things in a bigger way. Our job as adults is to teach them that not everything they know is everything there is. Our job as adults is to expand their understanding. We are supposed to be teaching them to open up their minds and to understand that the world is a lot bigger place than they think.
If you are cooking on the stove and you burn your thumb you may think that the stove is a dangerous thing, but if you have a good teacher with you she will explain how not to get hurt. Then you will start to cook again.
The same is true with people, and cultures, and insects, and anything. If you get hurt once you may generalize and think that is always the way it is. If you have a good teacher with you, you’ll learn how to interact with that person, that culture, that insect, and you will learn that not everything will hurt you.
Our job as teachers is to help children learn to establish boundaries and also how to break boundaries down.
The best part? You can be a teacher and not even be in the classroom. The whole world is your classroom, and teachable moments can happen anytime.
It isn’t sad that this child thought the way she did. This is just part of being a child. She has generalized, like we all do. The sad part would have been to not use that moment as an opportunity.