The world our children are growing up in is a very different one to the one we experienced when we were little. And I’m not that old, I hasten to add. When we were in school we shared our classroom with thirty or so other little freckle faced Irish kids just like ourselves. We all ate the same lunches, played the same games and spoke the same language. Any little child who looked different, or spoke differently or didn’t understand our ridiculous games was viewed with interest and everybody wanted to get to know them.
Nowadays, as people are constantly on the move, our children are mixing with different cultures and getting to know different nationalities and races everyday of their lives. I firmly believe that this is a good thing.
Growing up alongside children from other countries with different backgrounds can only be a positive experience for all. Our children will certainly benefit from the exposure to other worlds and this will teach them things they will never learn in the classroom. They learn that people are people, regardless of colour of skin, race or circumstances and should be treated as such. They learn that the world is a small place after all, that there are few boundaries and few limits and that travel can only enrich their lives.
You see, children aren’t born racist, prejudiced, biased or intolerant. It’s taught. Look at any innocent two year old child. Know what he hates? Naps and maybe peas. End of list.
So, we have to ask ourselves, when do they learn to resent other cultures? When do they become bigoted, partisan and narrow-minded? Now, of course, it’s only a minority of teenagers and young adults who go down this road, but, as I said, they certainly weren’t born with such an attitude. They learnt it along the way. But the good news is that if they can learn to hate they can also learn to love and that comes more naturally.
Children embrace diversity. They don’t see a child with different colour skin; they see another playmate, someone else to share an adventure with, someone else to get up to mischief with. They don’t need much in the way of language skills as the language of play is universal. Hand signals, head tossing, pointing and running is the same in every language.
That new child on the football team could be a boy or a girl, black or white, Muslim or Christian, there’s a fairly good chance that the kids won’t differentiate once a goal is scored. Children are great for making friends and bringing home new playmates. They don’t see the differences between them, they don’t judge. Thankfully, they know very little of hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry. They also probably know very little about tolerance, integrity, human decency and truth. They’re just doing what comes naturally.
For the first and most formative years of their lives they know only what we teach them and we need to teach them, among other things, that the only thing that should be separated by colour is your laundry pile.
Lots of children now learn about different religious holidays and festivals. They are becoming familiar with other cultures, diets, unusual customs and manner of dress. A lot of hatred is born out of fear; fear of the unknown, fear of what’s different and people feel threatened by what they don’t understand. Educating our kids like this removes the fear and encourages them to understand how people might look different, they might speak differently, they might go to different Churches but they are still people, just like us.
Now I’m under no illusions. I know children are not blind to colour or race and they do absorb information from the world around them which helps them form their own beliefs. But the buck stops with us really. We are our children’s first teachers and as such we need to be mindful and remember that beyond race, beyond religion and beyond culture, there lies beauty within us all. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not, but it’s there and we just have to recognise it.