Recent events and the ensuing heated political dialogue has made some of us think about the issue of bias, and what the right message to our children should be: should we ignore, explain or condemn what is bias and prejudice? Should we ignore or highlight differences among individuals/groups?
Most of us will agree that we all have a moral compass, and we would like to bring that out in our children. Being justice one of its pillars, the golden rule of treating others as we would like others to treat us prompts us to raise our kids without bias and prejudice
How we feel and how we behave might seem like two separate issues, yet they tend to merge together when it comes to our attitudes towards those who are different than us. That goes for both, parents and kids. As parents we need to be aware of our own potential for implicit bias (also known as implicit social cognition), which encompasses “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner”1. Take, for example, a woman or member of an underrepresented group who makes a point in a seminar, only to be ignored, and then a white male makes the same point a little later, only to be applauded for his insight5. This means, as role models we ought to be vigilant, since we could be eliciting biased behavior towards others without thinking we are.
On the other hand, and contrary to popular belief, studies show that our small children are not colorblind2. It seems they develop biases by ages three to five that do not necessarily resemble the attitudes of the adults who surround them2. Why? To start with, young children engage in something called “transductive reasoning” – when they see folks who are alike in one dimension (like color or gender), they think they are alike in other dimensions as well2. Kids do the same thing with objects, for instance, a child might assert that pizza is triangular in shape rather than round, because he/she has only seen single slices6.
Secondly, environments teach young children which categories seem to be most important and kids attach meaning to those social categories, without adult guidance2. For instance: “Good morning, boys and girls,” may help children infer that gender is an important social category, and they can then attach meanings to gender categories (e.g., “Girls are smarter.”)2, even if they don’t hear this from adults.
Honing on the point of social categorization4, a 2006 study (on the effects of adults' labeling and use of social groups on toddlers’ intergroup attitudes)3 showed that even in the absence of adult guidance, children developed biased attitudes as a result of simply assigning children to groups with different colors (“red or “blue”). As expected, when adults gave significance to the colors, the bias was greater3.
Making sense of all this and understanding bias is key to raising our kids without prejudice. Here are our top 5 suggestions to approach the issue sensibly with your young ones. We welcome your contributions and suggestions:
1 - Bring it up
Don’t think that young children do not notice differences or prejudice, and don’t avoid talking about it with your child in a meaningful way. The silence just keeps your child from talking about it2.
2 - Different is Beautiful
Highlight that diversity among people is a good thing, and that all colors, sizes, and shapes of people are beautiful.
3 - Be Vigilant
Watch out for manifestations of bias or biased behavior – remember children develop it on their own2.
4 - Explain
Clearly outline how biased behavior towards individuals is “not fair”. Kids have a strong sense of justice.
5 - Encourage complex thinking
Teach your child to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person or group at once, not just the most salient single one2.
(1) Understanding Implicit Bias, The Ohio State University, Kirwan Institute
(2) Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race, Erin N. Winkler, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
(3) Preschool children's attention to environmental messages about groups: social categorization and the origins of intergroup bias., Patterson MM, Bigler RS., US National Library of Medicine
(4) The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Willard Allport, Perseus Publishing,1954
(5) What is Implicit Bias, Rutgers Department of Philosophy
(6) The Development of Mental Abilities, D. Elkin - Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall, www.education.com