When a child faces discrimination
Whether short or plump, dark-skinned or light-skinned, born with tight, curly black hair or straight red hair, a wearer of glasses or of leg braces, your child may be teased about some aspect of his physical appearance at school. How well he deals with it will depend on his own personality, his level of self-esteem and how you prepare him for the occasional roughness of the world.
Every child should be grounded in his own family history and culture. Festivals, celebrations and family events are an excellent time for him to discover what makes your family so special. Encourage your children to talk to their grandparents and other family members about the old ways. Such conversations help them accept and love your family's differences when the dominant culture may seem to ignore them or to devalue them.
Understanding the basis of discrimination
If you are a visible minority, you might have to work extra hard to help your children counteract the negative attitudes that some people show toward those who look or worship the way you do. Recount stories about public figures, media stars or people in the history of your culture or your home country who could be role models for your child. When you watch TV with your child or see discriminatory stereotypes in other media, point out the inaccuracies. Talk with your child about discrimination in an age-appropriate way. She should understand that racism springs from ignorance, and that she has the right not to be ridiculed for her appearance and culture. But you don't want your six-year-old to be frightened of the world; save the most horrific details of the Holocaust and "ethnic cleansing" for when she is older.
Canadian ministries of education have developed policies and procedures to deal with discrimination. How well these policies and procedures are carried out depends to some extent on your board and your individual school's administration. Most school boards have offered professional development training to educators to learn how to prevent and cope with discrimination. School staff are obliged to stop racial teasing when they encounter it.
Unfortunately, most discriminatory incidents occur out of sight of a supervising teacher. If your child comes home with a story about such an incident, always treat her story seriously. Curb your anger, take a deep breath and calm down -- an extreme reaction may discourage her from telling you the next time. Sit down and patiently listen to your child's story without interrogating her. Tell her that the words she heard are hurtful and unacceptable, but reassure her that she has the right not to be bullied. Then ask her what she thinks you should do, or what she wants to do. The "correct" response will depend on your child's age and temperament.
Page 1 of 2
When your child is between the ages of six and eight, consider speaking in the classroom about the festivals and events and perhaps the beliefs that are special to your family. At a later age, your child may be embarrassed to have you visit his classroom, but continue to monitor what he learns by talking with him about his schoolwork, by participating in a parent group or by conferring with principals and teachers at his school.
The educators who develop provincial or board curriculums and the related learning and instructional materials work hard to achieve the clearest representation possible of peoples of diverse backgrounds and abilities. If you're concerned, you might check for yourself to see how well the books and materials in your child's classroom and the school's library and resource centre reflect the variety of cultures in Canada.
Make sure your six- to eight-year-old knows where to seek help from an adult. Young children often have to learn schoolyard skills such as staying with a group for safety in numbers, avoiding troublesome kids and learning not to cry or react strongly -- a strong reaction only encourages a racial bully. You may want to talk to the teacher or principal, even if your child is against it. When your child is in the early grades, its a good strategy to learn how your school deals with racial incidents.
An older child is more likely to want to deal with the problem himself. Help him by putting appropriate words in his mouth. "Yes, I have one leg shorter than the other; what's that to you?" You can work together to devise a retort for verbal teasing, without encouraging your child to indulge in name calling: "Curly black hair is beautiful. It's calling other people names -- that's ugly." Role-playing can help a sensitive child learn ways to stand up for himself and stop being a victim.
If your child is physically hurt or if racial teasing seems to be a pattern in your community, you may be forced to intervene more strongly. Inform the school first; most staff are grateful to know if there's a problem they haven't noticed. Make every effort to work cooperatively with them to solve the situation. Don't be easily put off by administrators who believe there's no problem. You know best what's happening to your child. If necessary, involve the board's consultant on racial issues.
If you don't feel confident approaching these people because English or French is your second language, then take along a friend who can act as an advocate. Sometimes the parents of minority students must group together to make a complaint or to get enough attention from administrators to solve the problems and to help create an atmosphere that is accepting and supportive of their children.
It's a good experience for your children to witness community activism, especially when you're involved. A nine- or 10-year-old may like to hear about people in the news or in your community who are working to end discrimination. Your 11- or 12-year-old may be able to express movingly the hurt that results from racial discrimination. It is wonderful to grow up with the idea that many others are working toward a world where we all accept each other.
Page 2 of 2