You are driving the carpool home from sports practice. Your Jewish child and two other non-Jewish classmates are in the car. You pass a big house; you offhandedly mention that your friend is moving in. Non-Jewish kid: “Is your friend Jewish?” You: “Why do you ask?” Non-Jewish kid: “Because Jews are rich.”
Growing up, I was pretty sure that if I ever came across something bad and wrong—anti-Semitism, for example—it would play out like an after-school special. First, the horribly uninformed, ignorant people would do something egregious, like spray paint a swastika on my locker. I would stand up to them, fiercely, loudly, and eloquently in the school parking lot, where it would be readily evident to everyone in earshot who was in the right and who was a pigheaded bozo. Then, I would deliver a moving, Martin Luther King Jr.-esque speech at a school assembly that would bring tears to the eyes of all, even the zit-faced antagonists. After the thunderous applause, I’d be hoisted on a chair so everyone could throw flowers in my direction, and voila, there would be no more anti-Semitism. Ever. Anywhere. The End. Credits roll.
You may not be surprised to learn that this is not usually how things go down.
What usually happens is that something ambiguous happens that you can see as wrong…or not, depending on your viewpoint and self-perception. Even if it does strike you as off-putting at best, you may choose not to say anything, because you don’t want to piss off your friend/in-laws/employer/kid. And then it sits in the air like the stink of a silent-but-deadly, and you wonder if it’s worth saying anything if no one else seems to smell it.
Admittedly, I’m a person who doesn’t really have any fear of being socially excluded—I have a lot of kids and not a lot of time for friends, and have been worn down by sleep deprivation. I also don’t mind coming off as “weird.” I mean, I drive my little kids around town in a cargo bike (children look longingly after me until they realize I am toting other children, not ice cream sandwiches).
But I had a sort of epiphany about these kinds of quiet, palatable prejudices and wrongs recently: If I want to make a better world for my kids, it is going to take lots of words, not silence.
You can rent “Schindler’s List” or watch all the productions of “Diary of Anne Frank” you can stomach with your kids. You can have oodles of discussions about hypothetical injustices and what the proper way to react to them might be. But I really believe that if you actually witness these kinds of things and choose to say nothing, you are doing your kids, and their future, a disservice. And that means not only questioning and confronting when you see prejudicial sentiments at play, but also having hard discussions with your kid about what you chose to do—or not—and why.
As parents, we often give our kids things they ask for, but at the end of the day, those aren’t the things they need most. Kids come to you and ask for rides to their friends’ houses, or toys, or new bikes, or Playstations. They don’t ask, “Can you give me the self-confidence to speak out when I see something that seems really wrong to me, even when all my friends seem to be cool with it?” or, “Can you tell me how to be brave?” or, “What if I say what I believe, but no one applauds…in fact, they boo and tell me I’m a jerk and don’t want to be friends with me anymore?”
Personally, I think the only way we can teach our kids how to be brave is to be that way ourselves. We need to test ourselves, to be brave and to speak out against what we think is wrong. Not only that, but we need to share with our kids that doing so IS NOT EASY. Even those of us who don’t care about being “popular” still don’t like being talked about behind our backs, any more than we did when we were 12. Even adults can be left feeling bruised and sore. And we should talk about that. The more talk, the better.
A friend of mine recently passed on some wisdom from her mother: “Life isn’t about being popular—it’s about making change for the better with love in our hearts.” And we need to teach that to our kids, in everything that we do. Every day.