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kids and *isms* - Ice Cream Assassin

Apr. 20th, 2010

07:48 pm - kids and *isms*

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I work at an elementary school tutoring K-5 kids in math and reading. With one other tutor, I work with 12-15 kids each day for about an hour; we each supervise a group of 6-8 kids. Due to the location and nature of the program, most of these kids come from low income families and are non-white.

Most of the children I work with don't know anything about racism, sexism, or cissexism, but they frequently use language that promotes all of these. Some seem to be genuinely ignorant and curious about the meanings of words like c*nt, g**chie, and motherf**cker. Others play games where they'll corner another kid and ask "Are you straight or curved?" followed by the reveal of "haha, that means you're gay!" A few days ago, one kid implied that he was gay, and the teasers paused before saying "You aren't supposed to say that. You're supposed to pick the other one. Are you really gay?" in kind of a laughing way, like it was a joke and there was no way this kid could *actually* be gay. Today, four older kids surrounded a Vietnamese first grader. Three of them tried to steal her money, and later the fourth, M, started talking in a fake Asian accent to tease her. M frequently insults all the girls at tutoring based on their appearances, calling them 'snaggle-tooth' or saying "Uh oh, here comes the big girl."

I am in charge of too many kids to be capable of stopping all conversations to address every incident as it comes up, but I don't want to imply that these things are okay. These kids are ignorant of issues surrounding prejudice, and it's practically impossible to talk about human rights to a kid who has no moral qualms about stealing from a kid three grades younger than them. I tried to have a conversation about respect recently, and all they were interested in was whether I would bribe them to act more respectfully. It also provoked a string of name-calling by M, who doesn't seem to care about anything or anyone, followed by a slew of tattle-telling by kids yelling out whatever supposed insult M had just said in attempts to get him in trouble. M really needs some one-on-one help and discipline, as none of his teachers know what to do with him. He is frequently suspended and sent to work in the hall, and told me his absence yesterday was because he did something wrong and had to go to court. Add his behavioral problems to the tendency of police to disproportionately target young men of his race, and I'm worried he'll be in jail when he reaches his teens.

The question I really want to address is how to teach kids about prejudice. Adults seem to shy away from talking about difficult issues with children, and expect someone else to do it for them. No one is explicitly given the responsibility to educate them in these topics. I only have an hour a day with them, an hour which is most often frantic and involves my hopping from child to child to correct mistakes and teach them concepts they missed a few grades back, so I can't give them historical background or go into much depth, but I need to do something.

Comments:

From:dance4peace
Date:April 21st, 2010 08:01 pm (UTC)
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Wow, that's pretty disturbing. I don't know why some people think kids are pure, etc.
Good luck with everything, Sarah.
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From:leisurelyviking
Date:April 22nd, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, Paul. Most of the kids are great most days, and I'm not trying to imply that they're always like this, but some days are frustrating and I need to vent. It's also frustrating that no one seems to be addressing issues like racism with kids when they obviously need to know about them.
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From:leisurelyviking
Date:April 23rd, 2010 07:53 am (UTC)
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I certainly didn't mean to imply that these kids were born racist, and I'm not sure how anyone would get that out of my post... It's certain that most of these kids need increased discipline and clear, enforced boundaries for bad behavior, but it's hard to enforce boundaries every time when you can't always see the behavior and have to rely on second-hand accounts from other kids, some of whom are trying to get back at each other. I do my best.

While they may not need a sociology lesson, they do need some kind of explanation of the reasons their behavior is wrong, which has to include a little bit of background on oppression. Everything I've read about disciplining kids says that the boundaries you set have to be reasonable to kids, and if they don't understand why a rule is in place they'll continue pushing against it because they want to know why it's making people uncomfortable. I remember things like this from my own childhood, when a classmate took every opportunity to raise her hand and ask our teacher what the word 'masturbation' meant. Every time, the teacher moved on to something else, the classmate got more and more curious, and she didn't stop asking until she finally found an uncensored dictionary. Sure, age appropriateness is important, but withholding explanatory knowledge while punishing children for breaking rules does not work and only increases their curiosity and willingness to break rules.

My problem is that some of these children don't even have an ingrained sense that it is wrong to do harm to other people, which makes it hard to give any explanation that they will accept. When a 4th grader has no problem stealing money from a kindergarten child, there's not much of a moral foundation on which to build.
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From:paff_
Date:April 23rd, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
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Whoa, that's pretty bad. I'm definitely no expert on kids or combating prejudice, but I'll try to help anyway. Hopefully these ideas are sound:

The best way to get the kids to listen to you about this stuff is probably just by being cool-enough and smart-enough and genuine-enough with them to get their respect - not to be viewed as some insincere adult from the school, but more as an older, wiser peer, or something.

They definitely also have moral foundations, but their moral foundations are all screwed up by stupid/wishful-thinking ideas like "kids who aren't tough-enough to keep their money don't deserve it, so it's okay for me to take it" or "other kids also have feelings, but I don't care about the very much, so they must not matter, and I can do what I want to them".

It seems like most of the time when people (including kids) do bad things, it's ultimately out of stupidity like that instead of stereotypically-evil/psychopathic tendencies. So if you can get their trust, probably the best thing you can do is let them know that you think those ideas are dumb, and explain why they're dumb.

Without getting 1-on-1 time with them, or at least arranging extra class time to talk about this stuff, there's probably not _too_ much you can do. I don't suppose you'd be able/willing to ask individual students to stay behind for a while after the class so you can talk to them a bit about these things?
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From:22seconds
Date:April 24th, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
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If you only have one hectic hour a day I don't know how much more you can do. Maybe you could talk to their regular teachers? Or institute a reward system (admittedly, bribery)? When I was in third grade our teacher had a system where every day we were given a colour based on how well-behaved we had been, and if we had a week with an average of "green" we got a reward (like a Snickers bar--possibly she had been watching Dangerous Minds). They probably wouldn't grok why what they're doing is wrong, but they may stop doing it for the sake of candy.

You might already do this, but you could ask them why they are using the insults they're using. "What's wrong with being gay? Why?" "What's wrong with being big?" "How do you know God's not a woman?" We've been using this tactic on my best friend's nephew since he could talk (he's seven now!) and it's helped to offset his father's (ahem) influence.

If you have the time I don't think there would be anything wrong with trying to explain the history behind what these kids are doing to them. If you haven't taken a Developmental Psych course you could buy a book that might help with "age appropriate" language and approaches (This was my book; there's probably internet stuff, too). I think younger kids do okay with "How would you feel if someone was doing this to you?" but I can't be sure (I pretty much slept through that class).

And I bet someone, somewhere, has made worksheets to teach kids about discrimination. The fifth graders might be old enough to read The Wave or watch the movie...

This sounds like a really difficult position to be in; good luck. (Sorry this was so long!)
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From:22seconds
Date:April 24th, 2010 04:20 am (UTC)
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Also re: masturbation: I asked one teacher what masturbation meant and she told me to ask my parents. So instead I asked a girl named Stephanie, who told me "It's when you stick your finger up your butt" which I believed from ages 9-13. So I'm a big fan of defining words for kids. :)
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