Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: A Guide for Adults To Help Their Child Be A Neighbor

By Jacqueline (Jaye) A. Ware

At this very moment, there are grown-ups that resent, ignore, hesitate, or down-right fear touching the subject of race. A feeling that “enough has been said,” a sense that “others can deal with it,” or a belief that “it is here to stay even if something should change.” But as the hands of time continue to tick generation after generation, the same jack-in-the-box keeps popping up because adults can’t control an itch to turn the handle of hatred.

The “Black is Beautiful” period, the “Say it Louder, I'm Black and I'm Proud” Generation, and the Black Lives Matter movement of today, are marching down the same road paved with the litter of racism, bigotry, and discrimination. The racism issue, as it applies to “African Americans", just will not die. Yet, adults keep kicking the trash of bigotry down the street to the next generation; our children. Yes, our children will do better; our children will fix everything; our children will walk hand-in-hand singing "We Shall Overcome".

Stop the record player. Stop pretending. Stop hiding under the blanket. Stop sugar-coating. Take the needle off the album, rewind the tape, and remove the disc from the CD player. A better tomorrow starts right here and right now with the grown-ups acting grown up, taking the bull by the horns, setting an example, and doing what we want our children to do; be good stewards and good people. So, how does that happen when it comes to truly understanding racism, bigotry, and discrimination? There is so much we need to teach our children and only so much time to do it, but race seems to still cause discomfort and avoidance.

The masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a timeless classic. A book that became a movie and a play, stands the test of time and not in a good way; as it raised issues that still break bread at our table today. If you have never read it, read it. If you read it ages ago, read it again. Then, where do we begin the discussion with our children? In my humble opinion as a parent, teacher, employee in the legal system, Spoken Word Artist, and writer of children's poetry and prose; it simply begins with you. So simple, yet a basic fact of life.

From birth to the fourth grade in the Pacific Northwest, I was raised and attended school around Native Americans, Caucasians, and African-Americans. It was as normal as apple pie, hotdogs, baseball, and Almond Roca. Naturally color came up because it is so entrenched in society, but the public ugliness that occurred in the South was frightening and foreign to me. As a child, I could not imagine being called the "N" word. It was out of the question, and I never understood why Blacks in the South tolerated so many indignities and abuse; and why the behavior even existed post slavery.

I could not imagine stepping off the curb when a white person walked by; being forced to sit on the back of the bus; drinking out of separate water fountains, being treated like I was dirty, or being required to enter a facility from the back. Now I wasn't stupid, I knew racism existed, but the level it was happening in the South was surreal.

Why are children put in the middle and forced to feel they are inferior or superior to another person simply due to skin color? If you know it is not right, use the gift of your voice to say something.

Just before entering the fourth grade, my Father received a settlement from a car accident, and we moved from our secure neighborhood to an "all-White" area. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

The new home wasn't more than two miles from my old neighborhood, but it could have been on Mars. I was the only African-American from the fourth to the six grade. When I walked in the door and the teacher introduced me, the children's eyes popped wide open like they had seen a ghost. To me they looked ridiculous and I should have been the one feeling shock and terror.

Yep, that was when I heard the “N” word from one boy in particular as he followed me home from school. I wonder where he learned that? I arrived home upset and crying. I wanted to beat him up, but knew that it would not be the right thing to do; particularly in my household. Fighting was not the first way to resolve conflicts. My mom, a product of the South went to school with me the next day, walked into the principal's office, and that boy never called me the “N” word again, but started acting like he liked me. Even as a child, I knew he had gotten in trouble.

So, what am I trying to convey? Speak up. Period. Stop using excuses. I would have, if... I should have, but... I could have, however... Unless you have laryngitis, you are quite capable of calling a spade a spade. When you see a Brown child playing alone at the playground, (and you do see it), while your child is having a great time playing with his/her friends, stop the record player; call your child and talk to privately about including others and how would he/ she feel if no one played with them. Require they go over and nicely ask the child to play with them.

There was a FB post I saw where several young children were bullying another child of color by grouping together and not allowing him to slide down the slide, swing on the swings, etc. The mother was present and would remove him from the hostile encounters. She finally left the playground. The child could not have been more than four.

The problem is that the parents of the little instigators were present, definitely saw what was happening, (even if they pretended to be oblivious) and did nothing. They were intentionally sending a negative signal. They had the responsibility to intervene, could have intervened, and should have intervened. No one did.

When you do nothing, you encourage abusive, bad, discriminatory, and racist conduct. Thereby, the "next generation" is learning from your lack of intervention and may also develop an immunity to, indifference of, and tolerance for racism. In my situation, my "grown-up" Mother stepped in to stop the bad behavior and apparently the grown-up principal was in agreement.

In this situation at the playground, a parent should have stopped the record player and required their child to play with the brown child and to cease from being rude, cruel, and insensitive. It doesn't matter how ridiculous other adults were acting, each parent is obligated to teach their child to be kind and caring. Shame the adults, if appropriate, by asking them how they would feel if their child was mistreated because they were in a wheelchair, had crutches, a learning disability, etc. A child is a child. The hope is that the other adults will feel guilty and make an effort, no matter how weak, to follow suit. In most cases, it only takes one person stepping out and away from the crowd. Be that one person.

If you are privileged due to the color of your skin, inherited a silver spoon, or worked hard to enjoy the fruits of your labors, what is important is how you treat others; this will ultimately hold more water and count more than all the cash in your account. Fires, shootings, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. don't give a hoot if you live in a multi-million dollar mansion or are homeless pushing a shopping cart. When in pain, we just want relief. When in trouble, we just want help. When grieving, we just want someone to offer comfort. Color is irrelevant.

We must choose and make a conscious effort to be inclusive. When sending birthday invitations, did you include children that do not live a lifestyle similar to yours or deliberately exclude due to skin color? What were you thinking when telling your children not to play with them? Or what was your motive when you told your children that those kids don't belong or wouldn't understand "our lifestyle". Them and those are trigger words for a questionable way of separating people based on race, religion, culture, color, and ethnicity. No matter how or why you excluded another child, particularly if based on skin color, you are perpetuating another round of racist ideology in your own children.

There is no need to engage in a lecture. Young children learn by watching and will emulate your behavior and actions. They understand your body language, they hear what you say, they see how you react, and they realize what you expect. If you should have done differently, then do differently. If you would have said something or stepped in, then say something and step in. If you could have been inclusive, then be inclusive. No one is perfect, but we know when our actions and words are intended to be hurtful by omission or comission.

Simply be an example of the type of person you want your child to be. Don't sugar-coat inappropriate situations or turn a blind eye and pretend you didn't see or hear it; stand up and do something about it. Your kids are watching you.

Yelling, screaming, and making disparaging remarks is not helpful, but showing kindness, understanding, and empathy is what can help children become intentionally thoughtful and consciously caring.

Last example is to use toys to act out scenarios. A co-worker has a daughter around 6 years old. The girl was selecting items she wanted for Christmas out of an Amazon catalog. One thing she checked was a large doll house. The mother said, “You already have a doll house." To which the child replied, “I know, but they will be neighbors." Think like a child and help your child become neighborly.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak/AP via Citylab