Q: A child told my 10-year-old son that he’s not smart because he’s black. Do I intervene or let him handle it himself?
A: Chances are, your son told you about this incident because he’s tried unsuccessfully to resolve the conflict on his own and doesn’t know what else to do. Your job is to listen to his story, without interrupting or judging. Don’t be in a rush to hear what went wrong. Let your child set the pace, and give him time to cry, or stop and start, if he needs to. Be careful not to assign blame, even if he tells you he instigated the teasing. Regardless of what he may have done, he needs to know he’s not responsible. Racial harassment is never permissible.
Help him understand that ignorant comments (“Black people are not as smart as white people” or “Black people aren’t clean — that’s why your skin is so dark”) are not about him. They reflect larger social issues, with years of history behind them. Give him time to express his feelings about what’s happening — after all, knowing that racist behavior has nothing to do with him doesn’t make it hurt any less. Express your own frustration, and how it hurts you to see him treated this way.
When to intervene
Before settling on a solution, help your son define what is behind the words. Is the child who is insulting him a friend, or just a classmate? Is he intent on hurting him? Is your son afraid of him? Find out if this is happening daily, weekly, or occasionally.
If he’s being taunted daily, or feels physically threatened, you should intervene immediately. Such a situation can escalate quickly, leading to an even worse one. Contact the other child’s parents and offer to discuss the problem and find a solution.
You should also intervene quickly if the racist behavior is happening at school. Your son may not want you to, but he must know that he’s not the first person to experience this. He should understand that there are policies and systems on his side. Show him the school’s racial harassment policy, and take him with you when you file a report, so he can see how the process works.
Your child’s role
If the teasing is coming from a peer who just seems to be parroting something he’s heard, you can help your son find ways to handle the problem on his own.
Start by having him write down all the possible ways he could respond to the taunts. (I’ve had kids come up with everything from crying, hitting, and yelling, to putting a gerbil down the tormentors pants!)
Help him see the pros and cons of each approach. Will this stop the teasing from happening again? Will I feel better or worse if I do this? If I do this, will I get into trouble? Could I get physically hurt? The one option to rule out, however, is to ignore the teasing. Doing so will prolong it and, if you go along with doing nothing, it will teach your child that you can’t be relied upon for real help.
Next, help him decide which responses are practical, given his temperament and social skills. (If he composes a snappy comeback, will he be able to say it when he needs to?) Once he’s chosen a solution, step back and let him try it. Or, if he dreads going it alone, discuss ways you can work together. You could offer to stand in the background when your son approaches his peer, or play facilitator in a peace talk. In any case, he should also rehearse responses that he can use himself, so he is ready to handle things when you’re not around.
Learning ways to respond to racist behavior will be a lifelong task. Your son’s strategies will change over time, and you may not always agree with the actions he chooses. But reassurance that you are his ally and that you’ll always listen with all your heart is what he needs most from you.