Q. Many years ago, I wrote an email asking for advice about an incident that had happened to my son. You wrote a response that was not only full of honesty and wisdom but that assuaged my feelings of incompetence as a parent. Today, that young boy is now a man and is doing fairly well. Our relationship, although challenging at times, is a healthy and loving one. My question today is about this time of racial disparity and pain in our country. As a person who believes in the importance of doing inner work so that we can be better people to others, I would like your opinion on how to respond, handle racist and disparaging remarks when I am surrounded by people who have very different thoughts than my own. It is unfortunate but true that not everyone in the country will speak up for racial injustice for fear of confrontation and or broken relationships. I have always taught my children to open their eyes and see the injustice, to be kind and fair and considerate of others. I fear for them as well. I want them to stand up for themselves and the healthy beliefs they were taught. I know that in order for change there has to be suffering but I am not sure how to come out of it with integrity. Your response will be gladly appreciated.
A. Responding to people with disparaging remarks requires the same honesty you have in your relationship with your son. And that means not fanning the flames of hatred by blaming or accusing those people whom you disagree with. It means being respectful of everyone, taking the high road and taking responsibility only for yourself. So an “I don’t agree. I see the situation very differently” may be all you would need. Or, “I can see that you have a different opinion which I’m sure feels right to you as mine does to me.” You are likely not going to change anyone’s mind with a remark or two. If they are open, they might then ask, “What don’t you agree with?” At that point it’s easier to answer with your opinion—owning it as yours. “The way I see it is…” If you are with your son, that would model your strength of character and respect for everyone. Arguing with the person does no more good than arguing with your child to try to get him to see it your way. One of the greatest lessons of life is knowing that we cannot control anyone but ourselves and it is only when we do that, that we influence others. When you stay calm and responsible for what you say and do, that is when your influence is most felt.
This does not mean it’s easy to stay calm and responsible! You probably feel like rampaging—I have certainly been there. But we know that does no good. Do the rampaging with like-minded friends.
I would definitely try some role playing with your son. “What would you say if someone said to you x? How do you think that would go across? What might that person say or do then?” Keep going with it until it seems evident that the other person would not fight back but might simply walk away. Even if the subject matter does not push our buttons, we can all feel anger rising when we feel blamed or wrong. In the role play, encourage your son to play an outraged bigot and you the outraged liberal. Then vice versa. Whenever either of you feel accused for being wrong, you will see how quickly you defend your point of view. Then work together to come up with some statements that take ownership of your point of view without accusing or trying to impose that point of view on another.
Anyone who feels deeply about a subject naturally wants to impose their sense of justice on others who don’t agree. And often when that feels imposed on us, we feel retaliatory. Our agenda vs. the opposite agenda. There may have to be suffering for change to occur, but you should not have to suffer to express your right to your point of view. This is of course what the fight is all about. Hence the street protests across the globe. You will likely suffer however if you try to impose that point of view on another. As with a child, you think you know what is best for your child to think and believe, but you will be much more successful at influencing that child when you say, This is what I believe. This is what I think is right.
Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With can help you shift your perspective of your child and his behavior so that your anger can shift to compassion and understanding — frustration probably; annoyance undoubtedly, but much less anger.