Parents Are Responsible for Teaching Children Kindness – Even If It Ruins the Fun

Parents understand that life is a constant barrage of “why” questions – Why can’t I have four cupcakes? and Why does that man on our block always call me “Papi”? As our kids get older, it’s also a relentless string of comparisons between what they know that we were allowed to do when we were their age, and what they are not allowed to do now that we are the adults. In these moments, it can be difficult to decide when to give them straight answers and when to massage the truth a little.

But we can’t abdicate our responsibility as parents – no matter how square or self-righteous it might make us seem – and hiding our flaws or those of others, sends the wrong message to our kids.

Halloween, for instance, is the time of year when we try to help our kids decide what costumes to wear when they go out trick-or-treating, whether we buy them or make them ourselves. When my nine year-old son, Kofi, found out that a friend had decided to be a “hobo” for Halloween, he asked, “Isn’t that kind of, um, offensive?”

Kofi’s right: the dictionary definition of the word is someone without a home – or, more pointedly, a homeless person – and in the US, where over 610,000 people (including nearly 140,000 children) are without food and shelter on an average night, it’s pretty insensitive to use their plight as a light-hearted Halloween costume.

But many people still associate the word “hobo” with some jolly cartoon character who chooses to carry a stick with a bandana tied to its end, endlessly jumping trains and cooking beans over a campfire. So while refusing to let your child dress up as a hobo for Halloween might seem nit-picky to some parents – or, at least parents who are not and have never been homeless – it’s not. We should worry more about raising kids who think it’s ok to mock homeless people than whether we feel like “hypocrites” for doing it ourselves 25 years ago and if we’re preventing our kids from just having a good time out there.

The people who first called for words like “hobo” – and “freak” and “retarded” and a hundred racial, homophobic and transphobic slurs – to be banished from the vernacular (and for those who misuse them to be held socially accountable) were those who both bear the brunt of people’s insensitivity, and withstand the climate of disrespect using this language permits. And, since it is unlikely that a homeless person would explain any of that to a kid dressed up as a hobo, it’s up to us parents to make clear to our kids why those kinds of costumes and those kind of words can hurt other people who can’t always speak for themselves – and that it’s actually a pretty direct way to erase their humanity from our collective consciousness.

My son knows that kind of language is mean because I told him it was – even though many times it would’ve been so much easier as a parent to let someone else’s bad language slide. When Kofi was seven, I had the bright idea of showing him a film that I had loved as a kid, The Bad News Bears. But 20 minutes into the movie, I found myself stunned by the racist and sexist language – I had no recollection whatsoever of the profanity from when I’d seen it at his age. Early on in the film, when the coach (Walter Matthau) asks the daughter of one of his exes (Tatum O’Neal) to join the pretty horrible team in a last-ditch effort to help it become a bit better, one of the boys on the team, pissed off about by the move, responds: “Jews, spics, niggers and now a girl?”

I turned off the film right then, and explained to my son that I’d made a mistake, that the movie wasn’t age-appropriate after all, and that we wouldn’t be finishing it, about which he was not pleased. I told him that words (not to mention the sentiment) like the ones the boy in the movie used aren’t necessary to communicate really anything to anyone, ever.

“Then why did your parents let you see it?”, he asked, forcing me to fall back on that familiar parental adage: “It was a different time.” (To be fair to my parents, the film was given a PG rating in 1976, and I think I went to see it with my babysitter.) But it’s almost as important for my son to know not to use that language as it is to understand that we can evolve as parents, as people and as a culture.

It’s not difficult to remember when an entire generation of not-gay people thought it was “too PC” to insist that the word “gay” not be used interchangeably with “dumb” – and lord knows my generation was equally terrible about the word “retarded.” (Some of us still are: I recently heard an educated adult use in it place of the word “stupid”.) But Kofi is a nine year-old boy in the year 2014, and I want him to to know better than we did. So I’ll take the hit from the anti-PC police and deal with all the “why” questions from my son, because what is being a parent if not about wanting better for your kid?


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