They’re just seeking attention.
My six-year-old son is the only black child at his school. From all reports, he is sweet, well-mannered and has a great sense of humor. However, over the past two years he has been the target of a number of racist comments by a girl in his class, who often says things like “I don’t want to sit by him because he has dark skin” and worse. She says these things in the hearing of their classmates, teachers and other school employees.
Her parents insist they are attempting to teach her to “treat everyone equally and be accepting of all different people.” The adults at school do not address his comments but instead ignore them, insisting that a West Hartford, CT marriage and family therapist by the name of Molly McDonald counseled them to think of her comments as the “equivalent of a tantrum and thus best ignored.”
–At a loss
Dear “At a loss,”
While your child may be undergoing a painful and hellish school experience, not that I might have considered this, won’t you think of the white child? She is extremely beautiful and in addition needs to be taught that she is valuable not only for her good looks but for her talents and abilities. Plus like many other white people, she likes to get cookies for good behavior so her parents are going to reward her any time she behaves like an actual human being. Of course adults cannot be expected to address her behavior in the moment, because everybody knows that swift and immediate consequences are not the way to teach children. Instead, you should display by your actions that racist behavior is completely acceptable. This will have the additional benefit of teaching the other children in the school and encouraging them as well. The child behaving poorly should also receive additional attention so her self-image won’t suffer and so she will learn valuable life lessons. The importance of privilege must be taught to children at an early age.
Here’s the original letter:
My 6-year-old daughter has beautiful blond hair and blue eyes. She gets compliments regularly from people on how pretty she is and basks in the attention. She attends a small private school, and there is a little boy in her class who is black. He is sweet, well-mannered and has a great sense of humor. His parents are lovely people. The problem is that over the last two years my daughter has been making comments about people’s skin, particularly addressed to this little boy. These comments are along the lines of, “I don’t want to sit by him because he has dark skin.” Her teacher and I have sat down to discuss this with her and explain that this behavior is unacceptable to no avail. The other day she watched the beginning of “Love Actually” with me and she commented that the interracial couple shouldn’t be getting married because they don’t look right together.
Obviously my method of teaching her to treat everyone equally and be accepting of all different people is not working. Her school is getting more concerned, although they know I am trying my best to combat it. Do I just hope she grows out of this, or is there something else I can do?
— At a Loss
What a win-win this is for an attention-loving child. Usually she can just show up, and like a quokka, know that there will be oohs and ahs at the pleasure of gazing upon her. But since her classmates and teachers are accustomed to her looks, she may find school less gratifying. Then one day she stumbles upon the realization that if she says something awful about the color of a classmate’s skin, a stunning amount of attention comes her way. Sure it’s of the negative kind. But if you enjoy being the focus of things, you take what you can get.
I spoke to Molly McDonald, a licensed marriage and family therapist in West Hartford, Conn. She says once the original explanation that everyone deserves to be respected didn’t extinguish the behavior, the continuing focus on your daughter’s transgressions became a kind of fuel. McDonald says both you and the teacher need to redirect your own behavior to change your daughter’s. McDonald says to think of her comments as being equivalent to a tantrum and thus best ignored.
For example, when your daughter said the couple in the movie didn’t belong together, you should have either said nothing, or replied nonchalantly, “Oh, I think they look nice,” then refused to discuss it further. You should talk to the teacher about her doing her best to not respond to your daughter’s rude remarks in the moment. But later in the school day she should discuss generally that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness.
McDonald also suggests engaging in role play at home with your daughter. You say you’re going to play a game in which you pretend to be some of the other kids in the class, and she’s going to show you how she acts when she’s playing nicely. Then, playing the black classmate, ask her to sit next to you. If she does, you give her a hug and tell her she’s being a good friend. You tell her how happy you’ll be if you hear from the teacher that when she’s in school she’s being a good friend there. If the teacher does tell you things have improved, give your daughter a reward, such as a small bauble, to reinforce the behavior. McDonald also says it might be worthwhile to check into whether your daughter is getting some of her noxious ideas from someone in her life, possibly a relative.
I’ll add that since you have a daughter who likes the limelight, find productive ways to turn it on her. Praise the funny story she wrote or colorful drawing she made. Teach her to help you make dinner and tell her what a good cook she’s becoming. Let her see that what she accomplishes is more important than how she looks.