Breaking the Cycle of Hate: Lessons From My 5th Grader's Classroom

What makes us better is our willingness to be honest about the challenges in front of us, recognize our mistakes and limitations, and still struggle to get it right.
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As we pass the 13th anniversary of 9/11/01 and the protests continue in Ferguson; as the killing goes on in Syria and Iraq; as acts of anti-Semitism grow, we're reminded again of the excruciating costs of bigotry and hatred. It's hard enough for adults to process, how do we make sense of it all for our children? How do we protect them from the cruelty in their own lives and teach them not to hate?

Last April in Chicago, I stepped into my 11-year-old's classroom to find a circle of students engaged in a discussion about a book they were reading. The story involved a young Chinese girl who had emigrated to New York and was struggling with being both Chinese and newly-American. Their teacher asked them: "What were the opportunities she had in coming to NY and what were her challenges?" Almost immediately, the students started throwing out examples of advantages the girl had, none discussed the difficulties. The veteran teacher, Ana Solis, herself an immigrant, stopped them: "OK, we need to reread the chapter together here because you're all talking about how wonderful it was for her in America, and yes, she had some great opportunities. However, we also need to understand what was hard for her." With that simple instruction, a guided reading lesson already tied to their humanities studies, also became a lesson on empathy: How can we understand the challenges and prejudices people face when they are different? How can we better understand our history as well as each other?

I've thought about this moment often. As a psychologist who consults with families and schools on bullying, I am frequently asked questions about cruelty. So much of it is rooted in being different. Our children are constantly struggling with choosing to be themselves yet also fit in; with choosing to be kind instead of cruel. Helping them learn empathy is essential. This past spring, the stories were particularly painful: a taunted 8th grader fatally stabbing his tormentor in New York, a 6th grade suicide and cruel anti-Semitic Internet posting in Chicago. Always, there is frustration and anger; always there are questions: What should have been done? What can we do? The problem is that these tragic incidents create a panic in us to push our politicians and journalists to cry foul and point fingers -- yet, just as quickly as the stories emerge, the attention fades. The bigotry and bullying outlive our focus.

Confronting hate is no easy task and there is no quick answer. Consequences are essential, but alone, do little to address the problem. What many teachers know is that truly addressing this issue means taking a longer view: How we teach our children, how we gradually build a culture of empathy and acceptance within their curriculum and beyond is what ultimately changes beliefs.

To truly address cruelty, we need to look beyond our immediate responses to hateful acts, and commit to really talking about these issues in our communities: What can we do to prevent these incidents? How do we help the victims as well as the perpetrators who are also often children? How do we promote a culture of acceptance? As in Ms. Solis' classroom, continually struggling with these questions is often more effective than the consequences themselves. Simply shutting down the hateful acts doesn't stop the hate.

Of course, the rest of us also need to do our part. What makes us better as a community, as individuals, is not telling ourselves we're doing things perfectly and it certainly isn't sweeping tough issues under the rug. I've learned this lesson repeatedly as a parent, a therapist, a wife and a friend and I will learn it a hundred times more. What makes us better is our willingness to be honest about the challenges in front of us, recognize our mistakes and limitations, and still struggle to get it right. Even when we don't have a clear answer, we must continue talking and encouraging our kids to talk. Can you imagine what that was like for her? How do you think that would make you feel? When we keep the conversation going, when the snake cannot hide in the grass, there is less room for bigotry in the world and for bullying and hate in our schools.

Alana G. Baum, Ph.D.

*Ana Solis is a 2014 recipient of the Golden Apple Foundation "Teacher of Distinction" Award for Excellence in Teaching.