Let’s admit it, parenting in our culture is not for the faint of heart. Today, both adults and kids have tremendous amounts of information coming their way every waking moment, and learning how to create balance and participate is a Herculean effort. With the upcoming election, and the divisive discussions about race, religion and gender, there seems to be an abundance of fear, blame, shame and guilt to manage.
As parents, we need to tackle these issues for ourselves while simultaneously helping our children navigate through the congestion of madness in cyberspace. A recent Washington Post article tries to answer how we can teach our kids not to hate, despite all the hate they're exposed to in this election. It addresses our need as parents to help our children learn to respect and honor all people, including those who are different from us. Reading this article got me thinking about my son, Zion, who has Down syndrome, and how much attention and discipline is required on my part to counteract what he sees in the media, learns from peers and finds exciting. It’s a full-time job.
My son is pretty drawn to aggressive behavior, such as wrestling and roughhousing. Because he is excited by these aggressive activities, his father and I have decided to enroll him in a form of Brazilian martial arts, with the intention of helping him learn the power of his aggressive energy. We also talk every day about being kind and even model it for him between one another. Apologies and accountability are big in our family.
The other day Zion told me that he’d fallen down at school and another child in his class had cruelly laughed at him. He was clearly emotional about the experience, and as I listened to him, I recalled the times I’ve seen my son laugh and tease his peers in ways I found hurtful.
After I understood exactly what happened and made sure my son was OK and didn’t sustain any injuries from the fall, I asked him, “How did it feel to have your friend laugh at you?”
“I felt angry,” he responded.
“I bet you did. I would feel angry and maybe sad if someone laughed at me,” I said gently. Then I pulled him close to me, and asked, “Have you ever laughed at someone when they fell down or teased them for something that wasn’t meant to be funny?” His eyes started to dart away from me and look to his father, hoping to escape the moment. I assured him that he was OK and that I just wanted to have a talk about how we treat others and do mean things without considering how badly it feels.
When my son turned to look at his father, his father insisted that he look at me and hear my words. I asked again and assured him that he was safe and wouldn’t be in trouble. I’m learning that in order for my son to feel safe sharing his most intimate truths and experiences, I must create a feeling of non-judgment. Because my son is sensitive to my energy and feels me on a deep level, it requires that I change my tone of voice and meet him eye-to-eye in a loving manner. No threat of harm or punishment can be present. The slightest tone of disapproval could ruin the teaching moment and put him on the defensive.
When my son was certain that he was safe, he said, “Yes, I have laughed at my friends when they’ve fallen down.”
“Do you think they felt like you were being mean, the way you feel like your friend was being mean?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “Do you want to be mean or for your friends to think you’re being mean?” I inquired.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
The amount of unkindness that children see on television and on the Internet is not to be taken lightly. Seeing adults behaving unkindly can create lots of confusion in kids. It’s up to us to counteract these messages by teaching them to think critically but also with an open mind, pushing them to ask questions before judging and letting them know that kindness, especially in a hateful time, can go a long way.