When Laughing Becomes Laughing At
Peals of laughter from my son usually make me laugh, too. This is true for all mothers, I imagine. But last month, for the first time, I found myself frowning at my son’s laughter. I found him laughing at someone – an overweight woman who was breathlessly struggling to climb a very long staircase.
Perched on the third floor, my laughing son was peeping down the stairs and pointing a finger quite resolutely. I stared at him, aghast, for an entire minute – why was my son laughing at someone? – before I shooed him indoors and gave him a long, disapproving lecture.
To be fair, my son is only two and a half; he probably didn’t intend to be mean. But the episode shook something inside me. It felt like a failure of my parenting. As a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural family, there are some values that are precious to us. We are not xenophobic. We don’t laugh at others’ misery, poverty, physical shape/colour or religion. And we certainly don’t point fingers at others with crass laughter spilling out of us. We are civilised folk, and I had — at least, I thought I had — encouraged an appreciation of diversity and difference in my son.
We like to think that truth comes from the mouths of babies, but it could just as easily be cruelty, prejudice and lies.
I hoped my scolding had brought the point home to him. But just two weeks later, I saw him laughing at someone again, this time a girl, only a little older than him and clearly from less fortunate circumstances.
We like to think that truth comes from the mouths of babies, but it could just as easily be cruelty, prejudice and lies. In his school, my son hears children with East-Asian parents routinely referred to as “chinky” and anyone dark-skinned as “afro.” Despite our best efforts at home, he sees ‘comedy’ (nothing very funny, if you ask me) shows on television that poke fun at girls and women, fat people, overly thin people and people with different accents. Our children imbibe the stereotypes of the world in the click between channels, in the moments we’re not looking.
As working parents, there is little my husband or I can do to prevent this exposure. I suppose I could turn over-protective, but I am not entirely sure if I want my son to look back and say, “My mom never let me go outside and figure out on my own.” Besides, limiting his exposure to the world could also limit his exposure to all of the wonderful differences I prize. It is a Catch-22, this. My tendency is to put my son into a bubble, but a bubble doesn’t allow you to interact. Blocking out interaction with both wrong and right also means blocking the opportunity to learn, understand, comprehend, reflect and empathise — processes key to defeating stereotyping and prejudice in children.
Despite what you might have read in the Lord of the Flies, children aren’t inherently cruel. I believe this, and it’s backed up by the research of Dr. Christopher Metzler, an expert on diversity and inclusion. Dr. Metzler says children are deep observers of the everyday world and what we do ourselves, as the role models in their lives, is what they also learn to do; he also says the answers we give to children’s questions are opportunities to expand their tolerance and inclusiveness.
I think asking kids questions can also create these openings. When I asked my son why he laughed, he said, “Mamma funny hai na?” I tried to tease out why it was funny, and pat came the answer, “Par who sab bhi toh has rahe they.” But they, the other children, were also all laughing.
I asked him, how he would like it if all his friends were laughing at him. He promptly burst into tears. After pacifying him, I asked him why, when the thought made him feel so bad, would the lady or girl in question also not cry. His “Sorry, mamma,” did not stop him from doing the same thing next time, but I did see hesitation then, a glimmer of conscience, of awareness.
I clung to that as I tried a series of other ways to help my son understand that people can be both same and different. I made a point to discuss differences in a way that focused on similarities. I tried to make him see how girls and boys both like food and love eating — and dropped in the fact that people only call girls fat; boys are somehow merely “healthy.” We talked about how disgusting green vegetables are, but also how important for both boys and girls and how being unhealthy was a bad thing for both boys and girls, not girls alone. We next talked about feelings, and how it is important to not to hurt someone’s feeling by laughing at them. And finally we talked about how what everyone was doing was not always right.
These conversations are complex and difficult, and I don’t know that my son understood them completely. But here is what I do know: It is far better to start talking than to brush things under the carpet when it comes to prejudice in children. Biases, of all kinds, are realities of the world. They exist in all of us; we may well have prejudices we don’t know about ourselves. And there is little we can do to shield our children from them.
Talking about biases is what can enable and equip my son to recognize them. Talking can be a tool for learning, for self-examination, for sharing what we think we know, and for questioning it with personal sounding boards. Without talking, there is no different point-of-view. Without talking, there is only pointed fingers and the echoes of laughter.