Six-year-old Taylor Haueter plays with Danny Reyes almost every day during recess on the Linder Elementary School playground.
When one of them acts like a jerk, they sometimes argue, too.
But one thing that never comes between them is their looks - Haueter is blond and green-eyed, Reyes dark-skinned and Hispanic. “I asked Danny one time why his hair was so black,” Haueter said. “He told me, ‘It’s always been that way,’ and I said ‘OK.”’
This innocent relationship stands a good chance of staying innocent as children grow up in Meridian, child psychologists say. As the whitest city in the Treasure Valley, in a state where minorities account for barely 10 percent of the population, Meridian kids are sheltered from many of the negative stereotypes that plague racially divided cities.
But this lack of diversity also robs children of a chance to learn important lessons - including tolerance and acceptance - that come with exposure to people from different backgrounds.
Filling in the gap, Boise State University psychology professor Linda Anooshian says, is a challenge that falls to parents. Teaching children about diversity may rate a place alongside the birds and the bees, and, today, the dangers of drug abuse and firearms.
If parents don’t actively broaden their children’s cultural understanding, they may never be comfortable around members of minority groups, Anooshian said.
Dan Ramirez, who represents the state’s largest minority group as head of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, agreed: “Our children need to learn that their culture and the way they look at the world isn’t the only way.”
Kids don’t think differences are bad
Children the age of Taylor and Danny are just beginning to understand who they are compared with other people, Anooshian said. But they don’t inherently associate differences in skin tone with differences in value. They learn that lesson from people around them - and no one influences their beliefs about others more profoundly than their parents.
If parents exhibit open-mindedness and tolerance themselves, that carries through to their children. But Anooshian suggests a more active approach, as well, such as introducing children to cultural events, programs and resources.
Public libraries, cultural museums and events such as Boise State University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Celebration Week each January are good places to start. They are oases of diversity in a community that can be racially one-dimensional.
In the Meridian School District, which includes west Boise, nearly 95 percent of the students are white. And in Meridian, all but 2 percent of the 25,000 residents are white, according to 1996 estimates from the state Department of Commerce.
“It’s hard to teach your kids about equality, anyway,” mother Gigi Van Laan said. “But it’s almost impossible in Meridian.”
You can see intolerance breed in this atmosphere from some of Danny Reyes’ own experiences in Meridian. Isolated prejudice glances off a boy still so innocent, but its meaning resonates for adults.
“Kids have said, ‘We don’t want you around here,”’ Danny said, while eating his lunch in a shady corner of the playground. “But my mom tells me, ‘Don’t listen to them; ignore them and walk away.”’
That doesn’t surprise Ramirez. “There’s always some form of racial tension in a community,” he said, “and in Idaho, it’s between the Hispanic community and the non-Hispanic community.”
On a recent afternoon at Linder Elementary School - in the heart of the city - six first-grade students talked about the “tannish” and “brown” kids they know, and what makes them different. All of them counted at least one Hispanic student in their class. And two are friends with them.
Seven-year-old Alison Couture’s teacher is Hispanic, too, but Alison didn’t realize it until her mother reminded her. Their parents watched the discussion in silence. Afterward, all said that at one time or another they had planned to teach their children about diversity - a task they see as a challenge in Meridian.
The commitment was more important to some than to others. Sue Couture grew up in a prejudiced family within a largely white Boston neighborhood. Once she moved to Washington, D.C., and realized different people do good things - not just bad - she decided to make acceptance a theme in her family.
“I tell my kids there’s white trash and there’s black trash, and there’s plenty of both,” Couture said. “And just because people look different from you doesn’t mean that they are bad.”
Example more powerful than words
Still, she knows from experience that example is much more powerful than words. She vividly remembers her father’s outrage at the idea of his children being bused to a largely black school.
That’s why she and her husband take their children with them to the homes of their black friends. They hope they’ll associate fun and friendship with all kinds of people.
Anooshian, who works with homeless children, said they, too, can feel the sting of bigotry. So do members of the area’s disabled and gay populations.
“You can’t avoid the social reality of bigotry,” Anooshian said. “Kids are going to be exposed to these prejudices; it’s just a matter of time.”
That’s why the best strategy to defeat prejudice is to tackle it head-on. But most young children don’t learn from lectures. They’re much more likely to listen if they initiate the discussion.
Pictures and stories about minority children, cultural events and racially mixed neighborhoods probably will puzzle them enough to prompt questions. Then, a parent’s answers will stick.
If your child has a bad experience with someone who happens to be a minority, Anooshian suggests talking about it right away to give them a basis for understanding. Remind them that the class bully isn’t a bully because he’s Hispanic. He’s just mean.
“Once people become fearful, they’ll avoid those areas of exposure that could open their minds,” Anooshian said. “Early, gut emotional reactions are hard to reverse.”