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Teen Telling Racist Jokes

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My 13-year-old son has come home recently telling racist jokes. We live in a predominately white community and he has had no contact with African-Americans. What else can I say besides 'I don't think that is funny,' to teach him not to be prejudiced?

A: I am sure that your son's recent display of racist jokes has left you worried and sad. Many people may view your son's jokes as innocent and harmless. I believe otherwise. Your son may have no considerable prejudice or hatred toward blacks or any other racial or ethnic group. However, with every derogatory racist joke he tells his respect for these groups becomes diminished. I am assuming that you do not condone racist jokes or any other form of racist behavior. You are certainly correct in voicing your displeasure and disappointment in him for telling these racist jokes. Merely expressing your displeasure, however, is not enough. You do need to make a concerted attempt to understand why your son is saying such things and to educate him regarding their harmful effects.

My guess is that your son is joined by and influenced by many of his peers in this racist humor. It would not surprise me if he/they made similar derogatory remarks about other racial minorities, homosexuals and women. Such humor is not uncommon among white boys of this age group. The roots of prejudice are fear and ignorance. I wonder if he or you have any regular contact with African-Americans. It's much harder to see the fun in racist humor when you have members of the degraded group as friends or significant acquaintances.

Perhaps you could ask him how he thinks he would feel if he heard others making racist/ethnic/religious derogatory jokes about his own family's background or religious beliefs. How would he respond? Would he be silent? Would he laugh? Get a discussion going that doesn't focus on making him feel like a bad kid for having told you these jokes. Focus on getting him to empathize with the targets of his jokes and putting himself in their shoes. Tell him that you know he is a good, kind kid and that you expect more from him. If he persists in telling these jokes in front of you or other family members, consider whether part of the "pay off" of telling these jokes is his getting you frustrated and angry. You cannot forbid him from telling these jokes outside of your presence but you can engage him in discussions, which may result in his thinking more considerately about the harm they cause.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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