I was sitting on the couch at a large family gathering. The children were sitting on the floor playing with the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys my grandmother always collected for them and the adults were watching football. A teaser for the local news came on the television, promising all the details in a domestic violence incident where a woman was shot while holding her eighteen month-old child. “She should lose her child, staying with a man like that,” someone declared. “Are you kidding?” someone else replied. She might lose her welfare check if she gives up the kid. Probably will have another one on the way any day now, if she lives.”
I stared down at the kids playing, hearing at us as we spoke. I thought about what they were learning, listening to the situation. I spoke up. “You never know what kind of life she has had, or what her options have been. It’s not her fault that he shot her. It’s his fault.” A new ad came on and someone changed the subject before things got too heated.
I call it “facebook comment sectionitis” – no matter how egregious the crime is, there are always people that will blame the victim. Once, reading a news article about a homeless man that was offered $50 for a days labor, and at the end of the day, he was stiffed. He was not the first victim – the contractor would regularly pick up people in need, work them all day long at manual labor, and then leave them without pay. The county had done an investigation and found that he told his victims of wage theft that there is no way the police would believe them over him, a successful local business man. “Those people are homeless because of their own choices,” a commenter replied. “If they had not messed up their lives, they’d have never been in a position to get ripped off like this.” It was shocking to me that anyone could see someone who is so down on their luck that they do not even have a home, doing a full day’s labor for less than minimum wage, and think they deserved to get stolen from.
This type of victim-blaming comes from a deeply indoctrinated dehumanization of “other” people that is prevalent in many circles of our society – in different ways. In the book Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, she asserts that this dehumanization exists between systems of class, whether they be divided by race or socio-economic status. For whatever reason it does exist, it is important to teach our children that because someone looks different or lives in a different country or goes to a different church does not make them bad people, nor does it make them deserving of misfortune.
Let me tell you why this is so important: your children internalize every judgement and critique you make of other people and they begin to judge themselves.
As they go through school, they will hear their peers talk of financial hardship or illness and they will think like you do. They might even tell another child “your parents should have worked harder if they didn’t want to get laid off” or “maybe your grandpa wouldn’t have died if he wasn’t a smoker.” And here’s the rub – both of those statements might be the truth! It doesn’t matter whether they “deserved” it or made bad choices – it is not our place to judge them. None of us are perfect. Each of us messes up. Our children need to be taught how to learn from mistakes, not be defined by them. Defining other people by the worst thing they do will lead your child to defining themselves by the worst they do. Something as simple as a failed test or, as an adult, a lost job, can convince them that they are deserving of bad things and that they have no worth.
An aspect of this has already spread into what some refer to as “cancel culture” – a public figure is found to have made an offensive statement and is therefore called on by the masses to be fired, blacklisted, and shamed in perpetuity because they made a mistake. There is a difference between making a mistake and learning from it and behaving in an offensive matter repeatedly, as part of a persons belief or ideology.
Children don’t need to be taught that the world is made of rainbows and that everyone is a great person who is going to be nice to them, but they do need to be taught that everyone should be considered as the whole of who they are, not the worst thing they’ve done or said. They will have friends and family that are simply not good people – it is important to teach them, as said by Maya Angelou, that when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Children do need to be taught not to be overly judgmental. It is up to us to model the values we want for our children. It is not enough to tell children to withhold judgement of other people while still making comments about other people’s perceived deficiencies ourselves. Remind them that you never know someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. Have empathy, and treat people the way you’d want to be treated. It is extremely important for a child’s self-esteem to see that people can make mistakes, or end up in unfortunate situations, and still be good people who have a chance at the future.
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