It’s not about the cake

It’s not about the cake

Like many other New Jerseyans, I was mortified to learn last month that I was living in the same state as Holland Township residents Heath and Deborah Campbell. The Campbells, of course, are the couple who were so filled with moral indignation that their local ShopRite refused to produce a birthday cake with the name of their 3-year-old child, Adolf Hitler Campbell, that they contacted their local newspaper, triggering a slew of media coverage that eventually circulated around the world.

The Campbells were ultimately successful in finding a store willing to make the cake and in blogs and various online polls related to this story, one can still find raging debates on whether ShopRite – which I believe deserves credit – was correct in its decision to withhold the cake.

In addition to naming their son in honor of the most notorious anti-Semite, bigot, and murderer who ever lived, the couple also have two other children – one named Aryan Nation after the vicious neo-Nazi hate group, the other named Hinler, inspired by Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader responsible for overseeing Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

But this story, of course, is not about the cake. One searches for the appropriate word to accurately sum up the situation in the Campbell home: tragic, cruel, irresponsible, appalling – perhaps all of them valid. However, we do ourselves a disservice if we miss the lesson that even this couple can teach us: It is that parents play a critical role in influencing a child, a child who will eventually mature into adult before he or she, too, becomes an influencer.

Many of the same people in our community who are horrified by the Campbell family may recall a disturbing article in The Jewish Standard a while ago that reported accounts of post-election racism in Bergen county Jewish day schools. According to the article and confirmed by first-hand accounts that I received directly from educators in these institutions, the educators were stunned by some students’ racism aimed at President-elect Barack Obama.

In my years of experience dealing with bigotry I must tell you that it does not require a complicated formula to ascertain the source of these attitudes. Sadly, most children are simply parroting what they are picking up at home. That “our kids” are not immune from this behavior only means that the homes from which they came may be infected with bigotry.

At the Anti-Defamation League, we do not believe that children are born bigots. Rather, babies are born as blank slates. As they grow, they observe, learn, and absorb attitudes from everyone around them, most especially from a parent. It is through this formative relationship that a child ultimately learns and practices prejudice.

It is through this same relationship that a child can receive a very different message. If we believe that kids are taught to hate, we also believe they can unlearn hate or – better yet – they can be prevented from learning it to begin with. Adults must be attentive to the messages they send and must understand the impact of those messages. Parents and caregivers need to educate children against bias, first and foremost by example.

Research and experience show that by the preschool age, children have begun to acquire negative feelings about themselves and others. Conversely, when children have positive interactive experiences as part of their regular environments and activities, they develop a healthy appreciation of themselves along with an appreciation of people who are physically and culturally different from themselves.

We educate our children about sex and drugs in age-appropriate ways because we know that one day they will need to make choices and we hope and pray that those choices will be safe and healthy. We reinforce those choices by having both sex and drug policies in our schools and our workplaces. But we fall short when it comes to teaching our children about prejudice.

Many adults are afraid to broach this subject with children. Some are paralyzed by the delicacy of the subject and feel inadequately prepared to deal with it. Others worry that talking with children about our differences teaches prejudice. But many experts debunk that myth, and besides, whether or not adults discuss it, all children eventually begin to notice differences among people as part of their natural development. It is the messages children receive about those differences that shape their attitudes.

Prejudice does not come from children’s awareness of differences in people, but from their perception of negative attitudes about those differences. Children learn biases from important adults in their lives, from the media, from books, from peers, and from numerous other sources around them. If parents are able to give children accurate information and teach them to value differences, children will better prepared to resist prejudice.

The axiom many of us grew up with, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is wrong. We know that words can hurt. The fact that so many of us can still recall the sting of an insult we received so many years ago attests to the deep wound that a remark can make. Children need to know that hurtful words are unacceptable and that it is valid to feel wounded when called names.

A good place for parents to begin soul-searching is by examining their own cultural assumptions and biases. For example, do we respond differently with a child when a person of another race is coming toward us, such as clutching his hand tightly or locking car doors? Do we show a genuine interest and openness to learning about and getting to know people who are different from ourselves? Do we use stereotypical language or make jokes about other groups or people? Does our child’s school make respect for other cultures a priority?

Our collective recoil of disgust at the situation in the Campbell home is healthy and appropriate. But it should also be accompanied by a reality check and a resolution to do a better job of teaching our own children about the consequences of hate, bigotry, and discrimination. Be a role model. When you treat everyone with respect and consideration, your children will start to model your behavior.