Saying “please” and “thank-you.” Learning how to share. Apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings.
The values behind these actions that most parents start teaching their kids early on – civility, collaboration, consideration of others – are a few of the primary values psychologists say your child should learn from you by the time they are 5 years old.
But two studies published early this year make it plain that in addition to those values, parents need to put special attention on modeling and teaching even their very young children the notion that all people have equal value – including those who have a different skin color, gender or speak differently – than your kids.
While it may seem surprising, one of the studies showed that kids as young as 4 demonstrate a marked bias regarding skin color and gender – even when they themselves are from a minority group.
And it’s not just what kids see that creates bias. The second study’s data revealed that youngsters prefer friends who speak with the same accent as they do, i.e., they prefer native speakers of their language to non-native speakers. And this bias was exhibited by the time kids are just 5 and 6.
For me, the most salient takeaway from this research is that if we want to teach our children about the basic value of every human being, we have to begin much earlier than many of us might have thought. Naturally, a deeply nuanced discussion about white privilege or gender bias isn’t appropriate conversation with toddlers; but, even the youngest of kids will be able to understand – through your words, actions and shared experiences as a family – what your values are around diversity. That’s parenting with intention.
The studies also point to this crucial idea: bias and racism are an unchecked outgrowth of preference. All of us have preferences about what we like and what we're comfortable with. It’s natural and totally normal. Preferences exist due to familiarity – how we grew up, what we see, whose accent we can understand.
Some people prefer Indian culture over Mexican. Or as a woman, feel safer sitting next to another woman rather than a man on public transportation. But preferences, unchecked and unexamined, can lead to bias. And bias can lead to devaluing certain segments of society. That’s racism.
Here’s how intentional parenting can intervene in a powerful way.
Since it’s been proven beyond a doubt that children learn mostly from what they observe their parents saying and doing, the onus is on us to make sure that we aren’t speaking about our preferences in a hierarchical way, i.e., Indian culture is “better than” Mexican culture. If we do that, we run the risk of passing that bias onto our children.
Parental actions in public and words in private must be consistent. Let’s say your family goes to an event where an unfamiliar cuisine is served. In public, you try many dishes and appear to like it – and encourage your children to give it a try. Great modeling. But if, when you get in the car, you initiate a conversation about how bad the food smelled and tasted, you’re not just dissing the culture, by extension you’re denigrating its people. And teaching your kids its okay to do so.
So, how can parents check their own bias? First, ask yourself what, if anything, you may be doing to reinforce your own bias. Being aware is the first step. Then work on changing your behavior and take advantages of opportunities to do better.
It all goes back to my premise that if you anchor your values about diversity and equality in your parenting decisions and actions, you have a better chance of getting the outcome you desire. Here are some suggestions for your kids under four:
· Add toys and books that include characters from different cultures to their toy chest
· Play music and try cuisines from different cultures and talk about where they come from
· Travel at home and abroad if you can so your children are exposed to other cultures. A city like Chicago offers many different ethnic neighborhoods to explore.
· Acknowledge and learn about holiday celebrations outside of your own culture and faith. If you can, ‘share’ holidays with a family that celebrates different religious or cultural events.
Explicitness matters – with kids of all ages. Parents who care about diversity and equality need to live our values loudly – and speak up in the face of racist words and actions your children witness. For example, if a friend of your child is in your house and says something derogatory about a person of another race, address it. Something as simple as, “We don’t speak about other kids like that in our house” sends a strong message. If the kid persists, it’s okay to limit your child’s time with him or her.
When kids are middle schoolers and older, talk to them more directly about any judgments or bias you recognize in them. For example, “I’ve noticed that when you’re with your friends, you talk a lot about Alicia’s weight. Not only is that unkind on its face, but you don’t really know someone else’s circumstance. Let’s talk about ways you can develop compassion and acceptance for everyone.”
Sadly, sometimes racism occurs closer to home than many of us might like. In some cases, parents choose to cut off ties – even with grandparents – because of their bigotry. I’m not sure I would advocate going quite that far, as sending the message that any ideology could cause me to shun family members could be frightening to children. I would advocate, however, saying regularly and often “We don’t share Grandma and Grandpa’s views.” After all, it’s possible to love family members without liking or sharing their beliefs.
If you’re a parent who values diversity and want to teach it to your children, it’s never too early – or too late – to begin. One child, one family at a time, we all contribute to making the world a safe place for every one.