After terror attacks, teaching our children not to hate

Fears of anti-Muslim backlash after attacks
In honor of the victims of Friday's terror attacks, people observe a minute of silence in the Place de la Republique in Paris on Monday, November 16.

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Story highlights

  • A group of New York City tweens sends an anti-hate message in new video
  • Intentionally exposing children to kids of different cultures builds tolerance, parents say

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)As any parent will tell you, we learn a ton from our children. Their innocence, openness and curiosity about the world often help us become better adults.

And there's probably no better time for that youthful wisdom than after a wave of terror attacks -- from Paris to Beirut to San Bernadino, California -- that has led to mounting fears and growing anti-Muslim rhetoric.
When SheKnows Media, a leading women's lifestyle media company, brought together a group of 9 and 10-year-olds to talk about what the holidays mean to them, the tweens quickly took the conversation to a whole different level. They talked about how the holiday season can be unifying, but also divisive, and how, after terror attacks such as those in Paris, groups of people are being singled out.
    "To single a culture (out) -- of all the bad people in the world -- and then make their whole culture bad, I think it's like...all the people with brown hair are good and all the people with red hair are bad," said one of the participants in SheKnows' Hatch program. The Hatch program, launched in 2014, set out to teach tweens and teens digital literacy and citizenship and has morphed into a platform creating social impact content that tries to get adults to think differently.
    Another Hatch participant, 10-year-old Gabrielle, put it this way: "They're some bad Christians. There are some bad Jews. There are some bad Hindus. There are also going to be some bad Muslims, but there are also so many good Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims that I think that makes up for it."
    At a time of mounting anxieties in the United States about terror attacks and escalating anti-Muslim commentary, it's more important than ever, it seems, to teach our children how to avoid going down what Samantha Skey, SheKnows Media's chief marketing officer, called the "hate path."
    One way to do that, she said, is by giving children a means to relate, such as having them think about other children their age who may be from different backgrounds than their own.
    "It's hard for them to think about Syria or to think about ISIS. Those are just big, scary concepts," said Skey, who is also a mom of two. "If you talk about other kids celebrating holidays, other kids your age who want to celebrate a holiday because that's what they grew up with and that's what their grandmother taught them ... that's very relatable to them," she said.
    Tanya Van Court with her children Gabrielle, 10, and Hendrix, 6
    Gabrielle's mom, Tanya Van Court, said Gabrielle and her brother Hendrix, 6, have understood multiculturalism from the time they were born. Van Court comes from a multiracial background -- her father is white, her mom is black -- and Gabrielle and Hendrix's dad is from Haiti.
    "So we have this very complex background of people who have been discriminated against, people who have been vilified, people who have been painted with one broad brush stroke. So the message that we try to give (our kids) is ... there is no way for you to really characterize any given people with a single brush stroke because you would be characterizing lots of people in your family, lots of people in your neighborhood and lots of people in your school."
    By interacting with people from so many different backgrounds in Brooklyn, New York, her kids learn to judge people not by the color of their skin but truly by the content of their character, said Van Court, a longtime digital media executive who has just launched Sow, a new savings platform for kids that allows their family and friends to fund their goals, such as saving for college or a brand new bicycle, as opposed to giving them useless gifts.
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    "When Gabrielle tells the story about someone and whether they are a good person or a bad person, there are no religious identifiers or ethnic identifiers or color identifiers. It's all about whether or not they were nice to her at lunch that day and that's what we care about," said Van Court.
    Growing up in Oakland, California, right after the Black Panther movement, Van Court was told by her aunt who raised her the exact same message that Gabrielle uttered in the Hatch video: There are good and bad people of every race and that she needed to keep the "good ones close no matter what race they are" and try to stay away from the bad ones no matter their race.
    "I love hearing Gabrielle say that because that was a core value of my family that was really passed down to her," said Van Court. "I think she articulated it far better than I ever did."
    I remember a few years back, when, on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, my daughter's then-first grade teacher told her and her classmates what happened. (I hadn't yet told my daughter about the attacks.)
    "She said that bad people came here to hurt us," I remember my daughter telling me about that day's lesson.
    I didn't catch it at the time, but I have since changed that message from "bad people" to "people who wanted to do bad things."
    "It's really just people who behaved badly, because I don't want them thinking, 'They're a bad person. Am I a bad person?' You're never a bad person, but did you think badly?" said Dr. Joe Taravella, supervisor of pediatric psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center's Rusk Rehabilitation.
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    "You make that distinction with kids as well because then we start getting into prejudices and religions and cultures and there's good and bad everywhere," he said. "We want to distinguish and help kids have an understanding of that at an early age."
    We, as parents, know that our children mirror most of what we say and do, so one important way to raise global citizens is by being tolerant ourselves.
    "The surest way to teach a kid hate is to be hateful as a parent," said Skey. "And the surest way to teach them tolerance is to exhibit tolerance because you can see especially ... before they become tweens, you can hear their parents in what they say."
    Surrounding your children with as many people as possible from different backgrounds can also help build open-mindedness, said Van Court.
    She believes parents need to be intentional about adding diversity to their lives.
    "It is in some ways intentional when we separate ourselves from other people. That's intentional. And so I think my advice would be to be intentional in the other direction, and seek out other opportunities to engage with other people who are from other backgrounds. And that could be going to a park in a different neighborhood than the one that you live in. It could be going to religious services in different places than the ones that you typically go."
    The benefits work both ways, she said.
    Exposure to other people for your kids doesn't just give your children the opportunity to be exposed to children from other cultures and backgrounds. It also gives other people a chance to be exposed to your family and become accepting of you, said Van Court.
    "So I think the only way that these perceptions are going to break down (is) when more people have those interactions with other people and truly get to know them, so that you can no longer, in good conscience, look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'All blank are blank way.' You can't fill in the blanks anymore because you have someone who absolutely doesn't fall into that stereotype."
    After terror attacks, what do you think is the best way to teach children tolerance? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.