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 parents work with a diverse group of people, yet they never invite anyone that looks different from their family to their home on social occasions. Already, her parents' behavior is beginning to influence Courtney's perceptions of people who look different than herself. 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, look for opportunities to teach your child about the golden rule, and how their actions (and sometimes even inaction) can affect others. Here are a few points to consider:
Parents need to do more than simply tell children 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.