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Watch out: Little brother is listening

Here on the Internet is the Kid's Page of the Justice Department (www.uddoj.gov/kidspage/), with a friendly looking attorney general delivering a message:

"Kids like you have to deal with the prejudice of their family members. . . . When someone makes jokes about people, or labels people because of where they come from, the color of their skin, their religion or gender, it's both a hurtful act and a hateful act."

This message is directed to kids from kindergarten to fifth grade. What is a child to do if he or she hears racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism or any of the other flourishing forms of bigotry at home? It can come from an uncle, a grandfather or one's very own parents.

Well, says Attorney General Janet Reno, "If this happens in your home, you might try talking to your parents, teacher, religious leader, counselor or some other adult with whom you feel comfortable."

And if at first your parents say you are making too much of just a joke, according to this directive, then tell your teacher or religious leader that there is hateful speech in your home. The Rev. Jesse Jackson might come by and set up a speech code for your parents.

Unfortunately, the Justice Department has not provided many specifics as to which words are hurtful or hateful. Children between kindergarten and fifth grade may already know some of those words, but other words may be confusing.

Targeting people as bigots is not quite as easy as the Justice Department believes. For instance, a child may overhear a black comedian on HBO _ making satirical fun of other blacks _ and then watch his or her family members laughing uproariously at that humor. Are they racist? Should the child tell a teacher or religious leader what his family finds amusing on television?

A child, moreover, may misinterpret an aside by mom or dad that is over the kid's head. Or suppose Minister Louis Farrakhan comes on C-SPAN one night and dad directs some unfriendly words, even hateful words, at the smiling minister. Should the child add that indictment to the list of prejudices in his family?

What if a child turns in a parent to his teacher, counselor, religious leader or other adult? Dad and mom certainly won't be put in prison, but one thing will surely happen. Dad and mom will become very careful of what they say in what used to be the privacy of their home.

Is this really the proper function of government _ to advise children to monitor their parents' or their uncles' or their grandfathers' speech _ however offensive that speech?

My wife and I used to play Lenny Bruce records, and our children, rather small then, would sometimes listen as we laughed at some of his sketches. These days, the kids could have turned us in _ and Lenny, too.

On its home Kids' Page on the Internet, the Justice Department tells the children: "It's wrong to label people because of the color of their skin or where they come from."

It surely is, but it's also wrong to turn kids into speech police.

As for the attorney general, suppose a child is afraid to correct her parents and has no adult whom she can trust on so delicate a matter? Is the Justice Department going to set up a file to which earnest youngsters can contribute the names of bigots in the family?

Some child trained to be a speech cop may also grow up to resemble the librarian who called me recently. She is planning ahead for Banned Books Week in the fall _ an annual defiance of censorship around the country. Setting up a program, she asked me if I would be willing to speak on Mark Twain.

I said I would and started to think of the irreverent language which he directed at those who imprison speech.

"One thing," the librarian told me. "You are not to use any language that might offend any of the people who come to the program."

"You have the wrong author," I said, "and the wrong speaker."

As a Jewish child in anti-Semitic Boston, I learned how hurtful certain kinds of speech can be. I also lost a tooth when that speech turned into a punch in the face. But as admirable as her intentions are, the attorney general should rethink installing child monitors of conversations in the home.

Instead, let school librarians suggest honest books on prejudice, followed by open conversations in the library.

Newspaper Enterprise Association

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