In my last blog post, I decided my mantra should be “a source for good and positivity.” With all the polarization and negativity in the world today, some might cynically view that as a naïve notion. But I believe every small positive effort makes a difference, and we may never know the impact of our efforts until many years later. I saw this to be true while working with young children in a Montessori classroom.
An interaction between children eating lunch at my table gave me insight into just how early it is that children learn the negative concept of “otherness.” I realized how critical our guidance is for them to learn to relate to each other positively. I mention their ethnicities here to prove a point, but I wouldn’t otherwise do so, and I’ve changed their names.
A European American boy, John, sitting to my right, told a South Asian American boy, Aruj, sitting to my left, that he would not be invited to his upcoming fourth birthday party because Aruj had “dark skin.” John then turned to me and said, “Miss Nagia, you can come to my birthday because you have white skin, like me.”
I was shocked to hear John’s words, and, even more so, since one of John’s closest friends was Ben, an African American boy.
Aruj, who was three years old, had a puzzled look on his face. Uncharacteristically, he said nothing and looked bewildered. Did Aruj think that his skin color was ever an issue before?
I quickly replied to John, “It does not matter what anyone’s skin color is. What matters is that we are all friends.” I turned to Aruj hoping that this might have consoled him. I wasn’t sure, so I continued, “Everyone’s skin is wonderful because it protects our bodies, and keeps us healthy. We all have different skin colors because that is how we were born. You, John, and Aruj and Ben, and I all have different skin color, different eyes, different noses, different hair. We all look different, but that is what makes you John, and that is what makes me Ms. Nagia. But we are all still friends.”
John looked at me for a few seconds and said, “So, CAN you come to my party, Miss Nagia?” I gave my usual answer, “If your mom and dad say it’s ok, I’d love to come. Now remember, we aren’t supposed to be talking about birthdays.”
John’s attention was diverted to a European American girl, Alexis, sitting across from me. He bit off a big piece of his pizza and spoke with his mouth full, “Alexis you can come to my party.” I was worried he’d mention her skin color, but instead he said, “When I turn four, you can come to my party, and I can kiss you.”
Alexis wasn’t paying much attention until she processed the last four words that seemed to be part of the party invitation. “Nah-ah! I can’t kiss YOU!” she cried with indignation.
John stopped eating and looked thoughtfully at Alexis, “But I’ll be four years old, and I’ll be old enough to kiss YOU!”
Alexis quickly retorted, “I’m going to be five, so you CAN’T kiss me.”
John insisted, “A four-year-old boy CAN, TOO, kiss a five-year-old girl!”
It didn’t take long for Alexis to think of something to make John understand. She turned around in her chair and pointed at another South Asian American boy, Taj, and said, “I’M going to marry HIM!”
It was a statement that Alexis made at least once a week—that she would marry Taj. Taj was used to it, and just smiled at Alexis.
Alas, John’s European American girl crush had decided to marry a boy with “dark skin,” whom John probably also did not want at his birthday party. John had to come back with a retort that would change Alexis’ mind, “But Alexis! I can dance! I can dance like Michael Jackson! Look!” He stood up, leaned on the back of his chair, and kicked his feet backward.
Alexis was not impressed, having had enough of the conversation. She pouted while asking if she could be excused to put up her plate.
I said, “Yes, Alexis, you may be excused.” John sat back down looking dejected. He mumbled to himself, “If I can dance, a girl should let me kiss her.” Perhaps John didn’t realize that Michael Jackson was also African American? Or perhaps he decided that if Alexis liked dark skin boys, then comparing himself to Michael Jackson might make John more favorable to her?
I can’t know exactly what John was thinking, but his comments showed me that even the very young have opinions about skin color and gender relations. My teaching experiences and raising my own children taught me the importance of doing my best to be a positive role model and a source for good. I not only taught the children many things, but they taught me a lot, too. Children’s openness to ideas and their innate need to learn about the world makes it critical that they be exposed to positive, productive role models and ideas. Once they get older, and throughout their very formative years from age 3 to 6, they retain all that they were exposed to, good or bad.
The next day in the playground, John and Ben played basketball like they always did; and Aruj, Taj, and Alexis chased each other around the playground, like they often did. In the following weeks I read to all the children the book, The Colors of Us, written by Karen Katz and later we sang through the book, This Little Light of Mine, illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Did my talk and later classroom activities about inclusion and respecting others have an effect on John or Aruj? I may never know, but I hope the children continue to hear the same positive messages reinforced by many other adults in their growing years: no mean girls and no mean boys.
It was a privilege to be working with those little souls everyday. The children came from all ethnicities and faiths, but that did not define them. Each child was unique and yet in many ways they were similar. There was the shy one, the loud one, the rule oriented one, the mischievous one, the talker, the silent one, the bully, the clown, etc. Yet, these personality traits were not fixed. The same child could have any one of those traits throughout the day or the school year. Each child experimented with different character traits trying to learn about the world around him or her by interacting with it and others. It was critical for the adults in the room to be the best role models we could possibly be for the children and to help them respect one another with grace and courtesy.
Sharing positive attitudes of inclusion and mutual respect with children is one of the simplest and often overlooked ways to be a source for good and positivity. It’s one way that each of us can make a major difference in helping to make the world a better place. A peaceful home life and an engaging social life can make the most positive impact on a child for a healthy adult life. Children grow up to become products of their interactions and experiences.
My mother was a language teacher and my father was a doctor. Both worked in “service” professions requiring the practitioner not to discriminate against her student or his patient in providing education or healing. Both parents taught my siblings and me the importance of respecting others as we respect ourselves. I’m grateful to them for teaching me through their own actions that it’s always better to take the high road with everyone and to look for the silver lining in every situation. Their lessons continue to help me face the challenges of life. Deep down we all know that the values we are taught as children, including love, kindness, caring, and sharing, are the values that can uplift us all, together.
Two of my favorite quotes reflect these observations: Frederick Douglass,’ “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And Maria Montessori’s, “If help and salvation are to come they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men.” And in contrast, we need to throw out the old quote, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Instead we should remember that children see and hear everything, so we need to be good examples of what they should do and be as adults. Those children will after all be the adults of tomorrow and create the future society as they have been taught it should be.
I’ve learned that I if I listen to a child, I can hear the world. Listening to the youngest among us tells me I have a responsibility to children as well as all those around me to be a source for good and positivity. I don’t see that as an idealistic or simplistic goal. Instead it’s a point of strength to be continually practiced, so I become stronger at it and it becomes easier to attain. Being a source for good is bringing light to an otherwise dark place. Each one of us does affect what is around us. We do affect each other. Each effort at being positive and a source for good has a ripple effect. May we all work together to be bearers of light and goodness. I do believe that shining together we can create an intense and consistent energy force to pierce through the world’s negativity and strife with hope and peace. So, stay calm, and shine on!