Your Child Is Watching
Children start noticing differences in skin color, gender, and physical ability at an early age. They begin to connect certain attitudes and feelings with those differences by seeing how adults react to them. Even subtle, unspoken messages given off by adults can have a profound impact upon a young child's developing attitudes.
For example, Courtney, age 4, notices that her white parents employ a black housekeeper and gardener, yet they never invite blacks into their home on social occasions. Already, her parents' behavior is beginning to influence Courtney's perceptions of nonwhites. Her parents might be horrified to know this, but would they be willing to change their ways?
Prejudice about race, religion, nationality, gender, and physical ability harms all children. The damage to victims is obvious. But those who hold biased attitudes also suffer. Children who come to believe, for whatever reasons, that they are superior are also in danger of never developing a completely positive sense of self.
"Children tend to model their parents' attitudes and points of view -- and even gain the love of their parents when they take on their views," explains parenting expert Jan Faull, M.Ed. "But prejudicial points of view are narrowing, closing children off to opportunities that involve a broad understanding of people and perspectives."
Immunizing a child against becoming biased means teaching him or her that differences among people are good and that diversity is enriching to everyone.
Here's an example of how children can be taught to deal with prejudice. Five-year-old Charlie's mother stops in the middle of reading a children's book to him and asks, "Do you notice anything wrong with the pictures in this book, Charlie?"
Charlie thinks for a moment and answers, "No."
His mother then points out, "Well, Charlie, all the people in these pictures have white skin. That's not the way things really are, is it?"
Charlie agrees, and his mother ends up suggesting that they use crayons to shade some of the people in the drawings so that the book, in Charlie's mother's words, "will be more like the world we really live in."
To help your children grow up unbiased, here's what you can do:
- Encourage your children to speak up when they see someone, especially another child, being treated unfairly.
- When possible, expose your children to after-school activities that include a mix of children from various races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. If the choice is available, consider a well-integrated school.
- Fill your home with books and magazines by and about people of all races and social situations. Broadening a child's mind is a good way to keep it open to learning and growth.
- When your children make a prejudicial remark about someone else, ask, "What do you think that means?" Children often repeat things they have heard without realizing their implications. Set aside a few minutes to explain the true meaning of prejudicial language and to make it clear that such language is not appropriate.
Parents need to do more than simply tell children that prejudice is bad. Children need to see this fact reflected in their parents' speech and behavior. Think about the generalizations or offhand comments you may make about others. It's important for your kids that you try to state your thoughts in a way that does not paint a broad negative picture of entire groups of people who share a gender, religion, race, ethnicity, or economic background.