Parliament of the World’s Religions: Raising children to be prejudice-free

Erica Palmer
Carl Murrell and Catherine Chapman, both of the Baha’i faith, discuss how to raise a prejudice-free child during the Parliament of the World’s Religions. (Erica Palmer)

Teaching children to overcome prejudice and live in the “oneness of humanity” is a difficult task for parents and teachers, but something that can be achieved, two Baha’i presenters said at the Parliament of the World’s Religions conference in Salt Lake City.

Catherine Chapman of the Baha’i Community of London in Ontario, Canada, shared her experience as an American growing up in five different foreign countries as a child. She said although this taught her that people are capable of being prejudice in many ways, she also learned that all people are capable of living together peacefully.

“All people have the capacity to live together with dignity and respect and love,” she said. “I’m a parent, and I saw that there is a small but crucial window where they can be given…a powerful injection of the love of humanity. And that can be their normal.”

The presenters focused on parents and teachers and their responsibility to teach children to live without prejudice during their Sunday session.

Chapman told of an experience her friend had when she went to teach children better skills when interacting with adults. Her friend said after the workshop, the kids were excited to go out to their parents and other adults and practice what they had learned. However, her friend noticed that although the kids were very polite and doing a great job practicing what they had learned, the adults would often ignore those who were trying to get their attention, or interrupt a child in the middle of a conversation to start speaking to another adult.

“The problem wasn’t the children, it was the adults,” Chapman said.

Presenter Carl Murrell, United Nations representative of the Baha’i of the United States, grew up an African American boy in New York City. He said he still remembers the first time he heard the N-word. He was on his way to play a basketball game with his elementary school basketball team when an adult pointed at him and called him the N-word.

“I wasn’t personally offended,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘but you’re the adult. I was supposed to be looking up to you. You failed me. Because if that’s all you have for me, then what do I have?’”

The presenters emphasized how impressionable children are, and how important it is for parents to recognize their own biases to avoid transferring them to her children.

Murrell said his wife took his twin daughters to Paris for a vacation when they were eight, and he remembers talking to them on the phone and asking them how they enjoyed staying in Paris. His daughters responded, “Oh, we aren’t staying in Paris. Brown people aren’t allowed to live in Paris.”

He said he was taken aback by this statement, and clarified with the others on the trip that no one had explicitly told his daughters this. Sure enough, it was something they had picked up on their own through the movies, social commentary, and experiences they had in Paris.

“I thought that was fascinating that they picked it up at that age,” he said.

Chapman emphasized that teaching children to live without prejudice does not mean refusing to acknowledge diversity. While it is important to recognize our primary identities as humans, it would be absurd to ignore secondary identities that come with our individual experiences of life, she said.

“When we say oneness, we are saying one, but not the same,” she said. “We are saying diverse, but not disparate, or separate, or fragmented.”

She said learning to live this way is not in a person’s natural comfort zone, and requires extreme patience, compassion, humility and maturity.

She called on parents to not only practice these teachings in their homes, but to work to include them in the structure of their schools and communities.

“It’s very clear that prejudice is destructive. And it’s very clear that we have to find a collective way to raise our children,” she said. “We don’t have to keep making our children fit into these small boxes that are so destructive to them.”

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