Teaching Kids To Be Tolerant

Detroit's City Council recently passed an ordinance that would make bullying and cyber bullying a criminal offense. Host Michel Martin explores how to raise kids to be accepting of differences. She speaks with moms Leslie Morgan Steiner, Desiree Cooper and Angela Jaafar. Jaafar is also part of the reality TV show All-American Muslim.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will close out this special broadcast from Detroit with the thoughts of listeners who call the city home. From the art to the architecture, we'll hear what they want you to know about their city. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, our moms are with us. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

And today, we want to talk about something that nearly every parent struggles with: how to raise children to be tolerant and accepting in a diverse world, but a world that doesn't always celebrate or accept differences. And we thought that this was a good time and a good place to talk about this because Detroit has been a place where people from all over the country, and indeed the world, have come to seek a better life. But those differences aren't always easy.

And we're also becoming more aware of the problem of bullying. Around one in six children is regularly bullied in school, according to a 2010 survey by Clemson University. And we're finding out that it can have real consequences. Thousands of students miss school every year because of bullying.

And we wanted to talk more about how parents can teach their children about difference and how to handle people who perhaps aren't tolerant of those differences, so we've called together some parents.

Desiree Cooper writes the blog Detroit Snob. She's a contributor to member station WDET. She's the mom of two. Also with us in Detroit, Angela Jaafar. She's a mom of four. And you might remember that name because her family was one of those profiled in TLC's reality show "All-American Muslim." And holding it down in Washington, D.C. is one of our regulars, Leslie Morgan Steiner. She is the mom of three. She's also author of the books "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love."

Ladies, moms, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DESIREE COOPER: Oh, thanks for having us.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Always a pleasure, Michel.

ANGELA JAAFAR: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Angela, I've got to start with you just because I wanted to ask about the experience of being part of "All-American Muslim." It was profiling a number of families - Dearborn, Michigan, but close - to try to expose people to, just as the title said, "All-American Muslim" families. I wanted to ask what kind of experience that was for you.

JAAFAR: The experience, as a whole, was an incredibly wonderful experience. It was something that I'm glad my children and my husband and I had a chance to be a part of. Initially, when we were approached, we had our reservations because I honestly really didn't understand what the interest was.

I guess, from being in such a diverse area and such a heavily populated Muslim community in the Dearborn area, maybe you tend to not realize and understand that the rest of the nation may not have that perspective that you have.

So, hindsight being 20-20, I think it was a wonderful reason to air such a topic because it started dialog and it really raised a lot of questions and answers for people.

MARTIN: But I want to pick back up on something that you said. At first, you didn't see what the big deal was.

JAAFAR: No. I really didn't understand what the interest was. I honestly was - just thought to myself, OK.

MARTIN: You just don't talk a lot about being Muslim, you don't talk a lot about being of...

JAAFAR: No. As a matter of fact, the interesting part is most of my colleagues said, you're not Muslim. I think that was one.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting. Have you ever heard them say things that perhaps they would not have said if they had known that you were Muslim?

JAAFAR: Not necessarily. No. I think we embrace people - I embrace people as individuals and as human beings and I think people treat you the way you expect to be treated, so...

MARTIN: What about the kids?

JAAFAR: The kids - my kids were completely unsure as to what the interest was, as well, because it's not something that we discuss at home as far as the difference. We are Muslim and that's what we raise our children as, but that doesn't mean that we highlight the differences. We try to highlight a lot of the similarities as human beings.

MARTIN: I do want to just mention, though, you don't wear a head scarf.

JAAFAR: Right.

MARTIN: And I assume your girls don't either...

JAAFAR: No, they do not.

MARTIN: ...wear a head scarf. And I wonder if you think that would make a difference if you did.

JAAFAR: I think, if you do wear a head scarf, it does make a difference because you wear it more on your sleeve and people probably can label you and that stereotype might be more - you might be more exposed to the stereotype when you wear a hijab. My daughters and I do not, so - yes - I think that was part of the reason why a lot of people that knew us, colleagues, neighbors, friends thought, oh, we never knew you were Muslim.

MARTIN: Well, talk about wearing it on your sleeve, Desiree, your kids are now adults. Your daughter is 21 and your son is 24, but race is something that people generally - I mean, some people can not disclose, but generally, race is literally something that you're kind of wearing on your face. And I just wanted to ask you about when your kids were growing up.

One of the experiences that you had was that your daughter changed schools from one in which - it was a majority black school and then she switched to a majority white one. And I just wanted to ask about that experience and how you managed it with her.

COOPER: It was, in a word, devastating. And I was a little shocked by that because I'm a military brat and I was raised quite often in an environment where I was the only black child or my family was the only black family, and so I had that experience as a child of being the only black child in a classroom and how isolating and all that could be. So to come to Detroit and end up with my child, my daughter having the exact same experience I had had like 30 years before, and really believing almost the trauma that it can be. You know, you - like Angela was saying, you teach your children it's other's people's problems if they don't like you and you're a wonderful human being and you brace them and you send them out in the world, and then you get out in the world and they really are not treated as equal. What does that do to a child's psychology?

MARTIN: Well, given example, if you wouldn't mind?

COOPER: Well, there were - well the, you know, the ever-present birthday party, you know, and is your child going to get invited to the party? I felt that my child, my daughter was a fourth grader at the time. Around 10 years old, this is when girls are sending boys notes. It was very clear that she did not have permission to have a crush on a white boy in the classroom; that all the popular girls could have dates but she was relegated, and I say relegated, not in terms of a hierarchy but in terms of her choice, to the other children of color - boys of color.

MARTIN: Well, how do you know this was race though, and not because she was new? I mean, that whole thing about the popular girls squeezing out the new girl is kind of - is such a trope and there are all kinds of movies made about it and everybody's white.

COOPER: Exactly. Except that there was no child that was acceptable, no boy that was acceptable for her except the other boys of color, and they weren't even in her class. So, you know, it was an issue of she couldn't fit into that and she really couldn't compete on that level and it felt like she was less than, like she wasn't good, enough not only to be their friends but also to sort of have a, you know, love interest in that group. She had to shop somewhere else.

MARTIN: I want to hear how you helped her cope with that.

COOPER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But before do, I do want to bring Leslie into the conversation. Leslie, back in Washington holding it down, as we said. Leslie, I want to pick up on something that Angela said, when she said we don't really talk about it that much. In terms of the research that's actually quite common mainly among, and I know, I don't know how you describe yourself as but among, I'll just say for the sake of conversation, white parents in this country often don't talk about race, whereas black parents often feel that they have to and there's a lot of research that bears that out. So Leslie, I wanted to ask you about that. Do you feel you need to talk to your kids about race, about ethnicity, about difference?

STEINER: I do feel that I need to. But I think you're picking up on something that I see all the time and I grew up with myself. I, you can't see me because I'm on the radio but I'm white and if there is such a thing, I'm very white.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEINER: Because I, I don't know, I have blonde hair, I come from a really WASPy East Coast family. Half my relatives went to Harvard, blah, blah, blah. And I think if you're in the majority race you don't feel the need to talk about it. And also you feel like by not talking about it you're somehow being very virtuous and being colorblind and saying that race doesn't matter. And the truth is because I'm white I have no idea whether race matters. You know, I'm never going to really understand what it's like to walk down the street as somebody who's African-American or Hispanic or anything else that's not a majority race here in this country. So I have to work to talk about it. And I grew up in a family where we didn't talk about it.

And I remember in the '70s I was at a D.C. public school and our school was integrated by the District of Columbia's busing program. And I had a new best friend who was black and, you know, we were in love the way second-grade girls are and I'd wished my parents had talked to me more about what the goal was of the busing program and why couldn't go to Valerie's house, you know. I didn't even know where she lived, you know, it was so far away. And I think it was a real teachable moment that my parents probably, because I thought they were doing the right thing didn't talk to me about. And when I have moments like that with my kids I try to really talk to them about it. Because when you're white I think there are very few opportunities to confront issues of racism and as a parent I've got to grab them.

MARTIN: Desiree, let's pick back on that with you. Talk about that. How did you deal with your daughter? And also I want to ask the flip side of the question, because there are some who think that black parents talk about it too much...

COOPER: Right.

MARTIN: ...that they load their kid's heads up with this idea that there is going to be a problem even when there isn't necessarily one.

COOPER: Right. Well, my kids actually started in elementary school in a school that taught psychology of the norm. And so you don't talk about difference. You talk about similarities. And you don't assume, as Angela said, that every mean person hates you because you're Muslim or because you're black or because you're Asian. You know, you just might not be a good person. And so they weren't taught those judgments.

What I feel is difficult is when you take that perfect pretty little world and that nice psychology and then you put them in motion in real life and, you know, honestly, you can do your kids a disservice because they're not prepared for the straight-up bias prejudices that people really do display. And I think that by talking to your kids you can sort of help them not prepare, not expect, but to understand that it's not about them. And I know that Angela in particular, she's talked a lot about it's not about you if other people have issues with you. It's about their psychology.

MARTIN: We're having our regular visit with the Moms from our special broadcast in Detroit. And I'm joined by Desiree Cooper. She's a freelance journalist and contributor to NPR member station WDET in Detroit. We are at WDET right now. Also with us, Angela Jaafar. She is a Michigan mom. Her family was one of those featured on the TLC show "All American Muslim." With us from Washington, D.C., one of our regulars, Leslie Morgan Steiner, and she's also a writer. She's also a mom of three.

Angela, you wanted to say something about talking about it. How do you talk to your kids about it? You said you really didn't talk to them very much about it until the series. That's kind of interesting.

JAAFAR: Yes. And I think the age of the children and what they can tolerate to understand as well have a lot to do with it. But I also think that you teach tolerance through demonstrating and through the way that you live your lives. And I think that the more we profess it sometimes and talk about it the more we create the question and the stereotype in their own minds. And that's where I don't - I mean my children go to a predominantly Caucasian white school. However, there is a mix of some diversity. But if you look at the ratio I think of even in this country, I think it's a fair ratio of a realistic diversity, so - or mix of people...

MARTIN: But everybody is not going to be part of a reality show to introduce these conversations. So it's kind of interesting what kind of conversation. You said that it did raise some interesting questions.

JAAFAR: Yes. My oldest...

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

JAAFAR: My eldest child Jenna, asked the question of why mom? They're interested in us just because we're Muslim? And the answer was yes. Because we're living the everyday American grind, you know, of jobs and sports and, you know, trying to juggle work/life balance, trying to have a, you know, maintain a healthy marriage, relationship, you know, within our families. And so that was my answer to her. And I just kind of stopped and thought about it and I thought wow, this isn't really what I wanted my children exposed to. But maybe on the flip side that, as Desiree, Des was saying that that's - it's good for them to understand because they could eventually face it.

MARTIN: Well, but one of the arguments about this series was one of the criticisms was that it was Pollyanna. And some people, some critics felt that it didn't address enough around the intolerance that some Muslims seem to have for people who are not Muslim or who don't adhere even to a very specific adherence to Islam. I just wanted to ask you, you know, about that. I mean do you feel any responsibility that you have to as a Muslim stand up for tolerance or something?

JAAFAR: I personally do not feel that I have to stand up for that. I try to stand up as an American, first of all, because I think your patriotism and your nationality is different than your beliefs and your faith. So I personally do not feel that I have to stand up for that. I think that the premise of the show was based on being an American Muslim and the nationality of being American as well as the faith of being Muslim.

MARTIN: Desiree, final thought?

COOPER: Yeah. You know, by asking that question, you know, your daughter asking the question why are they interested in us, you do give that reverse message sometimes. And that's I think for sometimes parents of color really go overboard. You know, the questions you aren't normal and so you do have to explain yourself to other people. And that's the question...

MARTIN: Briefly...

COOPER: Well...

MARTIN: Tell me how you would want to raise them. We have a minute and a half left.

COOPER: All right. Well...

MARTIN: Tell me how...

COOPER: All right. Well, I mean that puts the question in a child's mind, so I'm not normal? So, you know, it's really about at home not talking about success and not talking about achievements in terms of color but in terms of personality, in terms of striving, in terms of family history. That's what you arm your children with when they go out. It's not like I want you to be the first black surgeon to do something. I just want you to be a surgeon, you know, because this is what you're about. And don't forget where you come from.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Leslie, I'm going to give you the final thought. How will you know that you've succeeded in implanting the kinds of ideas and values in your kids that you want them to have around this specific issue?

STEINER: Well, I look for, you know, what they, how they talk about their friends mostly and how they talk about issues in their lives. And one thing I see as a big sign of success is that within our own little family unit we have a lot of diversity of opinion, which is an important and kind of diversity and there's a sign of tolerance. And I guess one point of success here is that I openly said recently that I couldn't believe that Newt Gingrich had married his high school geometry teacher. And I said, I'd never vote for him just because of that. And all three of my kids opposed me and said, well, that's ridiculous. You know, that's pretty cool to marry a teacher. And I said, OK, we agree to disagree.

MARTIN: We got - all right. Very good. Leslie Morgan Steiner is one of our regulars. She has three kids. She joined us from our studio in Washington, D.C. Here with us at WDET in Detroit, Desiree Cooper, freelance journalist. She writes the blog "Detroit Snob," and a frequent contributor to WDET, who is hosting us today. She's the mom of two. And Angela Jaafar is a mom of four. Her family was one of those profiled on the "All American Muslim" series on TLC. They were both here with us at member station WDET in Detroit.

Well, ladies, thank you so much.

COOPER: Thank you.

JAAFAR: Thank you.

STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

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