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by Dawn Menken, Ph.D.
The following is an excerpt from “Raising Parents, Raising Kids,” (2013, Belly Song Press) by Portland-area author Dawn Menken. A finalist for the USA Book Awards, the book is available at amazon.com and other booksellers:
Many families identify as being on the margin, relative to the mainstream culture in which they live. Social issues that other parents can put off explaining stare them right in the face daily. How can we teach our children about the world and their place in it without creating an antagonistic view of the world? How can we prepare our children for what they might encounter without hypnotizing them into holding a defensive stance towards the world? And finally, how can we also help them discover what might be empowering and special about being on the fringe—what is the value for their own lives and for the world at large? Can they find the contribution that such a fate inspires?
Many people believe that “fitting in” protects children from adversity and that living in a home that mirrors the mainstream culture around them will allow them to succeed while those who don’t will suffer in life. This belief originates in the desire to protect our children and not cause them undue pain. We might think that if we can pave an easier road in life our children will thrive. While I can appreciate the sentiment, I also believe there is a wealth and depth of experience to gain when we encounter challenges in life. Kids who have to confront the difficulties of being an outsider can also be supported to mine the potential richness of that experience. Too often we focus only on what is lost, but not enough on what can be learned and gained.
Adults often reflect back on their childhood experiences and realize that the times they were marginalized or discriminated against shaped them in positive ways. Despite pain and loneliness, many will say they learned about compassion. Others learned how to appreciate difference. Some found unknown strength and courage in the face of an incredible challenge. And others learned about perseverance and found something within that could never be put down. Obviously, this is not the case for all; others do get injured and never find their way through. Yet it is often the case that adults who suffered discrimination find themselves called to do the work they do based on these early experiences. These are the people who are now giving back to their communities as social workers, health practitioners, community leaders, teachers, conflict workers, leadership consultants, business leaders, politicians, community volunteers, non-profit leaders, and engaged parents.
We needn’t wait until we are adults to get this insight. Children can also be taught to find the purpose in the struggles they go through. A parent who is able to help her child understand what she is going through, help her to meet and confront those challenges, and then frame the experience in the context of being a conscious and contributing world citizen, instills a sense of pride and purpose in her child.
Take, for instance, the story of Farid. Farid came to me because his high school work had plummeted and he seemed moody and upset. In our session, Farid told me that he had been excited to move to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, but things had not worked out the way he had hoped. Kids avoided him; it was hard to make friends, and he felt isolated. He would overhear negative comments about Muslims and Arabs and he began to keep more and more to himself.
He shared with me how humiliated he felt one day in the cafeteria. He sat alone at a table and noticed as a group of girls stared at him and giggled. We guessed what those girls might have been saying. In his imagination, Farid discovered that they were curious about him. Although they acted rudely, Farid felt that deep down they were interested in his difference. He imagined they were filled with stories and stereotypes about Arab people. Farid’s mood lifted making this discovery and together we explored how he might interact with this situation. He was faced with his biggest challenge—how to approach girls!
We role-played the situation as a practice. Farid walked over to the cafeteria table and stated the obvious: “Hi,” he said, “So, my name is Farid, and I have a sense you don’t know much about people from Saudi Arabia. I struggle a lot in school because people tend to avoid me. They have lots of stereotypes about Arabs. So, let’s talk about where I come from. Feel free to ask me questions and I’ll tell you about where I come from.”
This was a big step for Farid, but his next step was to talk about his path in the world. What does it mean for him to be an Arab teenager in the United States during these times? We reflected on this and he got very quiet. Then he said, “I am a messenger of peace. I want kids in America to know that we are basically just like them. We want the same things in life. We want friends and to have a place in the world.”
This touched not only me, but Farid as well. His problem in school was connected to a life purpose, a calling. He realized that to be a messenger for peace and to take that seriously would give purpose and meaning to his life. Farid broke down walls at his school and approached that daunting cafeteria table. As a result, he became more socially involved in school, and his grades improved. Farid and I also spoke with his parents about how they could support him in his calling to be a messenger of peace. I know he is someone who has made and will make a significant contribution as an adult. Kids like Farid are cultural transformers and filled with the knowledge and sense of a larger task.
Parents can support their children by preparing them for what they might face without arming them against the world. Pace your child. Ask kids if they feel comfortable at school. Ask if they feel different and if that difference is celebrated; or do they feel ashamed and need protection? Initial questions should be light and inquiring. If nothing is happening—wonderful! Answers to such general questions will give you the direction you need to follow.
If children do feel shame or are in need of protection, help them connect positively to their difference, and support them to feel proud of who they are; let them know everyone is different, even if it isn’t always obvious. If children feel defensive, invite them to talk about a situation in which they have needed protection, or one in which they fear they might need protection. Play the situation out. Model how your child might defend himself. Role-play different interactions until your child feels more at ease.
Share your own stories about where you have felt different as a child or as an adult. Tell kids about the times when you were able to stand up for yourself and the times you felt you couldn’t. Share with them where you got stuck and ask for their advice. What could you have done differently? Your experiences will create a deeper relationship between the two of you and help them not to feel as isolated. Most kids love to hear your stories from childhood. Chances are that the places you felt stuck in your own childhood could be the same issues your child is faced with now. It is an opening where you can both learn together.
Finally, discuss different social action projects that would support your children and educate others. Some possibilities include creating school forums where diversity issues are discussed, attending inter-faith services, reading a book to a class, or encouraging classmates to share food, art, music, stories or something unique from their family or ethnic culture. The list is endless and it is a wonderful way to engage your children’s creativity and allow them to make a significant impact.
Dawn Menken Ph.D., lives in Portland and works with children and families in private practice. dawnmenken.com.