Mommy’s Little Bigot

Emily Yoffe, Slate, February 7, 2013

Dear Prudence,

My 6-year-old daughter has beautiful blond hair and blue eyes. She gets compliments regularly from people on how pretty she is and basks in the attention. She attends a small private school and there is a little boy in her class who is black. He is sweet, well-mannered, and has a great sense of humor. His parents are lovely people. The problem is that over the last two years my daughter has been making comments about people’s skin, particularly addressed to this little boy. These comments are along the lines of, “I don’t want to sit by him because he has dark skin.” Her teacher and I have sat down to discuss this with her and explain that this behavior is unacceptable to no avail. The other day she watched the beginning of Love Actually with me and she commented that the interracial couple shouldn’t be getting married because they don’t look right together. Obviously my method of teaching her to treat everyone equally and be accepting of all different people is not working. Her school is getting more concerned, although they know I am trying my best to combat it. Do I just hope she grows out of this, or is there something else I can do?

—At a Loss

Dear Loss,

What a win-win this is for an attention-loving child. Usually she can just show up, and like a quokka, know that there will be oohs and ahs at the pleasure of gazing upon her. But since her classmates and teachers are accustomed to her looks, she may find school less gratifying. Then one day she stumbles upon the realization that if she says something awful about the color of a classmate’s skin, a stunning amount of attention comes her way. Sure it’s of the negative kind. But if you enjoy being the focus of things, you take what you can get. I spoke to Molly McDonald, a licensed marriage and family therapist in West Hartford, Conn. She says once the original explanation that everyone deserves to be respected didn’t extinguish the behavior, the continuing focus on your daughter’s transgressions became a kind of fuel. McDonald says both you and the teacher need to redirect your own behavior in order to change your daughter’s. McDonald says to think of her comments as being equivalent to a tantrum and thus best ignored. For example, when your daughter said the couple in the movie didn’t belong together, you should have either said nothing, or replied nonchalantly, “Oh, I think they look nice,” then refuse to discuss it further. You should talk to the teacher about her doing her best to not respond to your daughter’s rude remarks in the moment. But later in the school day she should discuss generally that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness.

McDonald also suggests engaging in role-play at home with your daughter. You say you’re going to play a game in which you pretend to be some of the other kids in the class, and she’s going to show you how she acts when she’s playing nicely. Then, playing the black classmate, ask her to sit next to you. If she does, you give her a hug and tell her she’s being a good friend. {snip}

—Prudie

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