Monday, September 3, 2012

Going Along For the Ride

Last night I was watching a segment on Nightline about kids and strangers.  Kids, grouped by ages and sex, were put in a test scenario, where they didn’t know they were being watched via camera by their parents and the Nightline crew.  They were all being assessed on the “don’t talk to strangers” mantra that had been pounded in their brains since they were old enough to comprehend words.  Experiments were conducted where older kids were enticed into giving their names, phone numbers, and even addresses, when asked by an unknown person under the guise of a television star recruiter.  Smaller children were lured into the back of an ice cream truck to see ‘how ice cream is made’ and to ‘choose the music that blares out of the truck.’  Some of the kids saw through the schemes and didn’t take the bait to trouble.  They stood their ground and refused to do what they knew in their hearts and heads was a trap.  The majority of the kids, though, regardless of age or gender, eventually fell prey to the predators, giving out personal information, leaving with strangers, and getting in the ice cream truck to have the door shut behind them.

Many of the children started off on the right track, questioning the intention of the strangers, trusting their own instincts. At some point during the interaction, though, those same kids folded after they saw and heard the other kids in their group trusting the unfamiliar person enough to do what the foreigner asked them to do.  The parents watched in dismay as most of the kids, one by one, joined the masses and caved under pressure.   

The camera would zoom in for a close-up of a parent as she responded with shame, “Obviously we didn’t do a great job in teaching him to beware of strangers.”

No, what you didn’t do was teach your child to think on his own.  The piece was chilling to me, not because of the stranger danger scenario, but because of the example it served of children starting at a very early age following the masses and not using or trusting their own judgment.  It hit a nerve in me because I had just spent the past few days trying to understand how the noxiously disruptive “USA, USA” chant had spread so quickly across the audience at the Republican National Convention last week, keeping a female Puerto Rican delegate from taking the podium in a timely fashion, after having already been introduced.  It did not come off in the best light, to say the least.

Fast forward and those Dateline children could be the same people causing a ruckus at the RNC.  Sure there was some sort of explanation for why the ironic chanting of “USA, USA” was rudely interrupting Zoraida Fonalledas, the chairwoman of the Committee on Permanent Organization, from making her speech.  Whatever the point of the chant, it was obvious from the video footage that not everyone screaming it knew why they were even screaming it.  Here’s where my astonishment lies.  As the cameras panned across the audience, they focused on the young guys that seemed to be repeating their mantra with absolute conviction.  Of what, I’m not sure.  The cameras then rested on the faces of people that seemed horrified to be in the audience at that exact moment and that were not joining in.  The video cameras next caught person after person hesitantly joining in on the chant, then increasing their volume and confidence, as they heard and saw others doing it too.  It was shocking to see so many people, young, old, male, female, all white, jumping on a bandwagon that I’m guessing they knew nothing about, especially one that was emblazed with IGNORANT on the side!  The point of the chant, regardless of its intent, was completely lost to its untimely overlap with the introduction of a speaker, a female Puerto Rican speaker.  Come on y’all!  Didn’t your mama ever give you any hometrainin’?

From a young age, my biggest pet peeve with many of my friends and family members can be boiled down to this:  making decisions based on what everybody else is doing, or sometimes not even making decisions at all, but just blindly saying, acting, or doing things just because others do.  I remember never wanting to follow the norm for the sake of just following the norm.  I was curious as to the ‘why’ of decisions that kids, parents, and teachers around me were making.  It was imperative to me that I know why I was doing what I was doing, before I ever did it.  A lifetime challenger of everything and everybody I came across, I was often a lone dissent on many issues and trends growing up and on into adulthood. Of course I was wrong often, but more frequently than not, made good decisions, even if they didn’t parallel those of my peers.  Today, as parent to both a nine-year-old daughter and an almost four-year-old girl, I’ve spent more time trying to teach them to make their own decisions, trust their own instincts, and be their own people, than I ever have with cautioning them on strangers, predators offering them candy, or the rant of politicians who want to keep their parents from legally marrying and their school classrooms filled with WASPs.  I want my kids to THINK.  I want them to believe in themselves and their unique qualities, capabilities, and brain power so that they can grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults with confidence in their own judgment.

As parents, how can we keep our kids from just following the herd (and ending up on national television, looking like a racist)?  We can lead by example.  We can forge a path that makes sense for our own family, instead of one that corresponds with the Jones’s path.  We can make authentic decisions without fear of backlash from our peers, illustrating to our kids that they can do the same and survive unscathed.  We can take a moment of clarity each time we see our children making choices solely at the discretion of our personal beliefs as parents.  We can redirect them to view the world as THEY SEE IT, not just how we see it.  We can teach them to respect every person, even the ones we don’t agree with or don’t like, every single minute of every single day.  We can enforce manners as being paramount in life’s lessons and punish our children for interrupting when another is speaking.  We can stop enabling them to be a herd follower by saying NO when our kids ask us for toys or clothing of a certain label or type, because “that’s what all the other kids have,” instead of going out and buying it because we don’t want our child to feel ‘different.’  We can quit stereotyping people and situations in front of our children, which not only forms an opinion for them, but also gives them license to enforce that opinion, without ever putting an ounce of thought into it.  We can give our children knowledge instead of just opinion.  Encourage them to soak up every bit of fact and theory that comes their way.  We can promote education-based decisions in our children by showing them how it’s done:  live genuinely and without regard to how the guy in the next seat is living his life.

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