Home is where kids learn to love and, unfortunately, to hate.
As we recall the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I often wonder how he managed to maintain his nonviolent position in the face of all the aggression and inhumanity he experienced.
As Dr. King explained it in “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” a 1950 essay, “It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present.”
He devoted his life to the pursuit of social, political and economic freedom for all. Because of that pervasive love in his family, Dr. King may have always had a sense of internal freedom.
All of us learn about life from our families. We learn whether the world is a safe and loving place or whether it is a dangerous place of which we should be wary. We learn about whether people are good or bad and we learn about love, relationships, priorities and values. And we also learn about hatred, prejudice and intolerance. Granted, some forms of discrimination are probably hardwired, but family is where intolerance is nurtured.
If you think I am talking about someone else, listen to a typical conversation at your house. How much time is spent talking about people who annoy you – including family members? Do you comment about “those” politicians, or “those” new neighbors? Do you express intolerance about any group of people?
Every time words of discrimination and anger are expressed in the house, children absorb them like secondhand smoke. And in that moment of judgment or prejudice, all access to love is cut off because it is impossible to be close-minded and loving at the same time. And the consequences can extend beyond our own home.
After the 9/11 attacks I chaired a panel of high school students discussing discrimination. One of the panelists was a young Muslim woman wearing traditional garb. She said that she had only experienced discrimination once since 9/11: “I was on the subway platform and I looked up and saw a woman looking at me with hatred in her eyes.” When I asked her what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of that stare, she began to cry and talked about how frightened and self-conscious she felt. Every act of hatred, discrimination, prejudice or intolerance causes suffering. Words cause pain. And they cause pain to those who hear them and those who speak them.
To begin the process of change, perhaps we should think very differently about child-rearing. What if we stop preparing our children for a difficult, competitive and challenging world, and try to envision the world we would like to see them inhabit? Probably that would be a world of kindness and generosity. Perhaps it would be a world where compassion was more prevalent than criticism; one in which injustice to one would feel like injustice to all.
When you are done visualizing the world you would like for your children, begin thinking about how to raise children capable of creating such a world.
Once we have the vision and the goals, we are ready to take some steps:
Make a commitment to yourself to make a genuine effort to care more and criticize less. Remember, you are beginning a process that will last a lifetime. So don’t criticize yourself for not doing it well the first day!
Notice how you feel when you are being critical or judgmental versus when you are feeling caring or loving.
Make it a family policy that there be no criticism of anyone at the dinner table.
Extend your sense of caring to the larger world. Remember, if you want your children to live in a world where people care about one another, teach through action. For example:
Gerda Weissman Klein was 17 years old when the Nazis took her from her beloved home and sent her on Hitler’s infamous “death march” in which hundreds of women died from exhaustion and hunger. When she later arrived in the United States, she said that no child should ever experience the kind of hunger she did. As a result, she has created a foundation (www.kleinfoundation.org) devoted to teaching school children compassion for others and how to contribute to diminishing hunger.
Almost every spiritual leader the world has ever known has told us to feed the hungry and pursue justice for all. It’s time to listen.
Every family should have a cause to which its members are devoted. And devotion takes time, care and investment. Make an active contribution to diminishing the suffering of others. It will teach your children – and it will change you.
The question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice – or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
– Martin Luther King Jr.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 1963