Every parent can recall an embarrassing incident where their child pointed out to a stranger and asked why he or she looked “different.” In fact you’d be lucky if your child was subtle enough to just stop at using relatively benign words like ‘different’. I still remember the sheer horror in a mother’s eyes when I used to live abroad, as her child pointed at me and asked an uncomfortable question. The child was duly shushed by her mother as she cast me an apologetic look, trying to ascertain whether or not I had taken any offense. But then a few years later I was on the other side of the line when my daughter pointed out to a person and made a very blunt remark about their skin colour. Just recalling the incident makes my heart leap out of the rib cage. But why do children’s honest questions make us so uncomfortable? Moreover, why we as parents prefer to shush them or divert their attention than give them a rational answer?
- A study found that parents rarely discuss issues of social identity with their kids.
- Why do we feel such inhibition when we have to talk to kids about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc?
- Is it because our orthodox conditioning manages to put us into flight mode whenever such a topic pops up?
Why do children’s honest questions make us so uncomfortable? Moreover, why we as parents prefer to shush them or divert their attention than give them a rational answer?
A study called Identity Matters, conducted by Sesame Workshop found that a majority of parents rarely, if ever, discuss matters of social identity, such as race/ethnicity, gender, class etc. with their kids. Curiously, the parents who participated in the survey said they do feel comfortable talking about social identity, but they just don't do it. This means that we as parents would rather not have the conversation. Reason? Perhaps we think that our child is too young to buy our reasoning. Is a five-year-old mature enough to understand race, gender or sexuality? However, we often underestimate the intellect of our children, and the solution here isn’t to plug the conversation but to simplify it for them.
As an Indian parent though, my biggest struggle has been to overcome the orthodox conditioning which turns us to avert our eyes from anything that doesn’t fit into the social definition of “normal”, “natural”, "good" or “acceptable”. Despite a liberal outlook as an adult, many modern parents find the prudishness hardwired into them since childhood when it comes to discussing issues related to social identity very difficult to overcome. We would rather flip the channel when people are “doing love” (as my kid has taken to calling any display of romance) then talk about it. I am indeed guilty of scrambling for the remote frantically every time an ad for a condom plays on television and my six-year-old is watching it. It inbuilt hesitation to broach a tentative subject like this and many more just doesn’t go away.
Despite a liberal outlook as an adult, many modern parents find the prudishness hardwired into them since childhood when it comes to discussing issues related to social identity very difficult to overcome.
It seems easier to tap out of the conversation by flipping the channel than launching into a conversation inexperienced. Could that be the reason then? The fact that we weren’t privy to any such pep talk during our childhood, and thus we have no basic ground work at disposal on how to broach a difficult topic with our children? Or is it because we are afraid of how our child will interpret the information we provide, and then regurgitate it back to their peers? Or are we afraid of raising wise children in an unwise world, where knowledge doesn’t earn you appreciation but trolling?
No matter what the reason, I know where I am going wrong, and I know the findings of this report resonate with me, as I too choose the easy way out, and I am sure many parents do so as well. But learning and unlearning is a big part of parenting. Perhaps now that these findings point an accusatory finger at me, I will stop taking the convenient way out and prepare myself for the tough conversations. No child is too small to understand social identity, isn’t that why they ask questions? Then why must we adults think them too be too small for the answers they deserve to have?
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are author’s own.