Like many psychologists throughout the country, I’ve received countless calls from parents and teachers struggling with how to address last week’s election with their kids. One teacher instructed her students to write their feelings on index cards. A student asked, “Can I write just one word?”
As the teacher read from the cards anonymously, one word in particular was repeated many times.
Many kids feel terrified and targeted. America elected a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Since then, schools throughout the country have seen hate crimes rise on campuses and fears intensify. In order for our nation and children to heal, we’ll need to address the bigotry and deep divisions that exist. How we educate our youth will be essential.
When we give permission to hate, the floodgates open. When sexual predatory behavior is excused, when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment is promoted, when a White supremacist is named as a president’s chief strategist, bigoted thoughts become sanctioned opportunities to act. Shameful ideas hidden in the shadows are given microphones, and dangerous behaviors are modeled for our children.
An Opportunity to Educate
As poisonous as hateful messages are, they’re also educational opportunities for our children. American history illustrates the tragic consequences of tolerating bigotry—slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese-American internment camps, Jim Crow. Helping students understand and discuss these events prepares them for the myriad challenges they will face.
The next generation’s politicians and teachers will need to understand the dangers of growing hopelessness and the underlying causes of unrest. If they’re to address violence in our cities, they’ll need to appreciate the lure of gang participation as well as the pain of its victims. They’ll need to know that complicated problems are solved only when understood from all sides and figured out together.
School curriculums must include ongoing conversations and lessons about empathy. If we teach them to consider different viewpoints and feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, it’s a game changer. When we help students understand how others have dealt with hopelessness and hatred, we help them navigate their own obstacles.
At my twins’ public school in Chicago, their teachers use a program called Facing History and Ourselves, which helps students understand racism, religious intolerance and prejudice by relating history to their own lives. They’re studying civil rights, learning to think critically about different perspectives, talking. Last year, on a trip to Alabama and Tennessee, they walked across the Selma bridge and stood where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. They heard details of Emmett Till’s brutal murder. Like them, he was only 14. This year, they’re studying the Holocaust.
In a crowded gymnasium last June, these kids performed acts they had written themselves—about Little Rock students, their first day of integration, Rosa Parks, about children in our own inner cities. Black, White, Latino and Asian, our students played these parts as if they lived them and we felt their anguish. When children feel the pain of unfairness and bigotry, when they learn to appreciate other perspectives and speak out, we change their futures.
At President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, Maya Angelou recited from her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”:
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
Nearly 25 years later, teaching our children to understand and confront hate still remains our greatest hope and protection for them.