Raising Conscientious Kids

There are a lot of concerns when you are raising kids, at any time, but our time, is especially challenging because we have ever fragmenting communities. They say it takes a village to raise a child, well the village has changed, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! We are all a small piece in this ever widening puzzle of humanity, and the picture is only now revealing itself to be much more nuanced than formerly believed. Our parents’ views are antiquated, and ours are rapidly getting archived as such as well. There is hope, however, there are some things that, as they say, spring eternal. Universal values of sharing, kindness, patience, listening carefully, treating everyone with respect, and doing onto others as we’d have them do onto us are more relevant than ever.

I have four kids, as most of my readers already know, and they’re all school-aged. My concern, as a mother, is that they understand that despite the fact that some people are unwittingly benefitting from a great deal of privilege just by virtue of having been born a particular way, each person’s narrative is different, and it should not be dictated by what others interpret it. They already instinctively know a lot of this, having lived in countries where they were perceived differently depending on a variety of criteria. It is a constant learning curve. We’ve travelled a lot, lived in three (arguably four) different continents, so they’ve seen themselves viewed from a very wide range of lenses, and as such, they have a very good understanding of how people’s perception of them doesn’t have to define them, although it does play a role in how they choose to move about any given space.

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In our home we never used racial identifiers, they didn’t know what a “black person” was, not because they had never seen dark skinned people before, but because we never used skin color as an identifying trait. They always thought Indians are from India, that Natives/Aboriginals/First Nations are the Original inhabitants of North America and other continents before European settlers came. There’s no confusion there. Despite the fact that they don’t know all the history, they understand that their roots are deep, and stretch across the globe. Then we came to North America, where in an attempt to counteract existing racist tendencies teachers teach kids about “black history,” claim every morning that we stand on the ancestral land of the First Nations, and poke at a variety of other issues surrounding “race.” I have had to discuss these issues in great detail at home, to counteract these supposedly “politically correct” ways of teaching in our schools.

The very fact that there has to be a SEPARATE history lesson just for people of Loyalist descent, and another for those of Native descent, is elitist in and of itself. I’m all for balance, but this isn’t balance, it takes up only one eighth of social studies class (which in and of itself wouldn’t be an issue, if not for the fact that Native and Loyalist history is foundational to other histories on this continent), and it’s taught separately, as though it is only relevant to itself and not outside of itself, as though it bears no real weight in “actual history.” I realize that re-writing all the history books to include all aspects of populations formerly excluded is a long and costly process, but patching it up every year, trying to squeeze in a semblant of fairness in existing texts makes a mockery of fair representation. Sixty years after the Civil Rights movement, you’d think we’d have had plenty of time to re-write textbooks to address the unfair representation of all groups, including people who came from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Native population!

Our family’s efforts to start our lives on a level playing field, where skin color plays no role, was superseded by the urgent need of a curriculum more concerned with easing its guilty conscience than with righting wrongs. This meant dismantling the entire concept of racism from its foundation: races are a social construct that has no actual baring on a person’s worth or character, and every attempt made to make minorities feel included is preceded by an extensive period of excluding them based on this fictitious belief in racial superiority/inferiority. I’ve had to remove the adhesive bandage to reveal the ugliness it attempts to conceal, at which point they themselves remark at how inadequate the care is.

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On top of this, we are Muslims. Proud Muslims. My kids are Arab, Native American, and Swiss. Their experience is very variegated. It never occurred to my kids to hide their faith, or their nationalities, until they realized that their classmates were equating terrorism with Islam, Natives with abuse, Arabs with backwardness. All of which of course came as a shock to them, as none of it represented any of their own lived experiences. Of course they know about wars (we escaped one, twice, and we’ve been regularly involved with Syrian refugees), which hurt everyone, especially those at the receiving end of them. Of course they know about bad people of all faiths who do horrible things, but they see them as individuals. They identify the individuals as criminals, not entire groups, or nations. Even when it’s the military of a democratically elected government, we are sure to point out that these decisions aren’t taken in consultation with the populace, and it’s unfair to blame an entire nationality for its governments’ foreign policies. They understand a lot more than the people trying to misjudge them do, and they require the confidence to stand firm in this knowledge.

They learn in school about how Natives were abused and robbed, neglected and mistreated, but it’s as though this was all in the past, and the first reaction of many is still: why don’t they let bygones be bygones already? Despite the fact that there are Reserves all around us, nobody mentions it, Natives are part of books and history, they don’t exist among us. But we do. So they’d come home and say: “Aren’t we Mi’kmaq?,” “Well, yes, of course!,” “Were you or nonna in Residential School? Was great-grandma pushed away from her land?” Because this need to ease the guilty conscience concentrates on past wrong doings, like a confessional, and it expects immediate redemption just at the mentioning of its sins, not acknowledging that this wasn’t everyone’s reality, and that despite all wrongs, we have survived, some have overcome, some cope, some make do, but really all we want is to be finally treated like human beings, not like statistics. Acknowledging the wrongs is only one part, we need to be recognized as actual members of society. We’re still here, dealing with yet another wave of double-consciousness, where we need to feel bad for stirring up the pot while still having to deal with people’s indifference with current problems. We’re your neighbors, your friends, and we want to be seen as such, not as a generalized story, but as individuals, with different experiences, who all contribute in different ways to all of our stories. There are present problems that need to be addressed, the past is intertwined with the present situation, and it needs to be faced, but not just to ease a guilty conscience. That’s insufficient. History is supposed to make people think about the present in more meaningful ways, to be able to make an actual difference in the current situation, so as not to repeat past mistakes. To do this, we need to exist in everyone’s mind, in the now, as human beings deserving dignity and respect today and in the future. There has to be a concerted effort to not only look at the wound, but examine it, realize that the pain is real, that the infection is spreading, and that it needs to be dealt with immediately and appropriately, not as a matter of history, but as a matter of reality.

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And then there’s Islamophobia and all sorts of connected subsidiaries. When my kids notice kids making fun of their faith, it hurts. “Why do they think being a Muslim is bad? We don’t do anything bad! How is that possible?” Ultimately the answer is in education, in patience, in behaving constantly the way you feel you are, not the way others think you should be. Being a proactive positive presence, volunteering, being a living example of these teachings. And it’s a matter of refusing to accept other people’s stories about us, by keeping our own truth alive and well, exerting it outwardly, and focusing on our lived experience, not the one people cite from books, the news, social media, videogames, or movies. It’s so pervasive that sometimes they don’t immediately recognize it, it’s just a little nudge, that they quietly push aside wanting to continue enjoying life as normal, but as anyone who has experienced discrimination knows, the nudge always returns, in different forms, sometimes in the form of a veiled compliment, or as a persistent background noise, but it never truly leaves you until you deconstruct it and make some sense out of it.

It’s obviously a lot harder to ingrain positive self-image when the outside sees you differently from how you feel, on a regular basis. Everyone goes through this to some extent, and we all need to constantly reaffirm our convictions. We need to keep steadfast in what we believe to be true, standing firm in our confidence that goodness will prevail, if we are strong, honest, and true to ourselves. Holding on to this belief helps weather the storm, it doesn’t mean we won’t experience storms, it just means we have a better chance of surviving it and overcoming its effects. It’s clearly much more challenging when your own personal story conflicts with the one you are fed constantly from the outside, but in it there are many opportunities for growth, and mutual understanding. Of course, systemic discrimination is a bigger problem than we can address here, but it’s important to be able to identify it as something you don’t have to carry with you, in order to be able to shed it.

This constant reminder of how one is perceived differently from our own narrative informs their sensitivity to injustices they witness in other circles, and has made them more aware, and more sympathetic, and empathetic.

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Along with this comes the realization that with privilege comes an urgent necessity to go out of their way to empathize with people who don’t fit the standard mold. This isn’t something that I teach methodically, it arises naturally whenever they see a difference in the way they are treated as compared to others, sometimes, being Muslim, and being young, they notice that their privilege doesn’t extend beyond the age and religious barriers, and sometimes they observe girls, or differently abled people, or the new kid, for example, being mistreated, or ignored, and they wonder about that. I would like to think that they’d be the ones asking them to play, checking in on them, and keeping them in mind next time they need to choose a partner for a class project. It’s a matter of noticing these particular instances of difference, and how they are perceived in their environment (be it at school, at the park, or in public and private spaces), addressing them as they arise, with honesty and kindness, knowing fully well what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such scorn or neglect.

It’s a balancing act, really, understanding that privilege needs to be kept in check, once used as a platform to bring about equitable treatment of less privileged people, once to be used as an example of how they would otherwise be treated. It’s a clear reference point, which helps in identifying instances of injustice, whilst having a precise goal to aspire to. Kids are very perceptive, and more often than not, they will notice imbalance internally before we even get a chance to address it. So it’s important to keep the door of communication open, and the ability to question “authoritative” opinions a consistently viable option. In other words, there should be a safe space for them to be able to voice their concerns about the reasons behind any particular decision.

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Now I can see your antennae spiking and sounding all kinds of alarms; as parents we are their “guide” and the “ultimate authority” and our decisions shouldn’t always automatically be up for discussion. Sure, ultimately we are responsible for the choices they make until they are old enough to make their own, but it’s also true that we can’t honestly expect them to turn 18 and suddenly be able to make their own wise choices if we’ve been making them for them up until that point. There has to be a transition, a gradual learning curve that allows them to be able to have confidence in their abilities to make such informed decisions on their own. Like with anything else, practice makes perfect, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect them to magically learn how to arrive at informed decisions if they were never taught how to get there on their own. Showing and talking about it is one thing, they need to practice, and through this process, gain the confidence and knowledge they need to be able to trust themselves to be left to their own devices.

My kids, because of their particular intersection of faith and ethnicities, face these sorts of learning opportunities more often than most kids, and I do believe that they have gotten lots of practice in the art of listening and sharing, as well as knowing when to switch gears (say jump into humor, sarcasm, or simply changing the subject). Mostly, in all this, I think the most important lesson is not to underestimate our children. They understand, instinctively a lot more than we give them credit for, so instead of talking down to them and using infantile language to explain complex issues, or trying to shelter them from what they can clearly see, I explain everything the way I see it, and trace my steps to a point of mutual understanding. I believe this works, as my kids seem to be able to discuss just about any topic in class, bringing all sorts of evidence and perspectives to counter arguments and issues brought forth. They also understand that just because something is in a book, it doesn’t make it right, and that adults make mistakes too, though we do emphasize the need to respectfully disagree, and not immediately assume that they themselves have all the answers.

It’s a constant learning journey for them and for us as parents, and teachers, but I hope that you’ve gained some useful insights from our particular perspective. Feel free to join the learning journey and add your thoughts to the comments below, or on my FB page.

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