Dear Dr. Debbie,
The unceasing anti-minority gun violence in our country is upsetting to say the least.
My children, ages 3 to 8, are generally oblivious to the news—I try to catch up when they’re asleep or not around—but I worry about the social climate they are inevitably going to be touched by. I’m pretty sure they themselves will follow the examples their mom and I set for having a diverse bunch of people in our social circles, but how can we teach them to handle prejudice and fear-based violence at school or elsewhere?
Differences Aren’t Dangerous
Research on the subject of prejudice suggests that young children are most influenced by their immediate families which makes you part of the solution. The issue of prejudice-based violence is a complex grown-up problem that tragically affects children either directly as witnesses and victims, or indirectly through the sadness, anxiety, and anger it evokes in their significant adults. And since there appears to be no safe place any more, there will be even greater security measures impacting your children’s daily lives.
So while we grown-ups are challenged to cope with the immediate crisis, and its many complex causes, we can also work toward preventing prejudice and prejudice-based violence in the future.
Set the Best Example
Families help to prevent prejudice in their children by being inclusive of all kinds of differences and intolerant of prejudice and violence. You set a fine example when the people you interact with are observably diverse—from family members, to professional contacts including caregivers for your children, to social settings the family visits among complete strangers. Prejudice is a regrettable feature of human interaction, pitting our need to belong to a group against our need to fend off perceived competitors for resources, so find teachable moments to educate your children about individuals and groups that have been able to overcome discrimination. Use examples from history, current events, and personal experiences of your own and of other people your children know.
Intolerance of violence is also best taught by example. Authority figures such as parents and teachers should employ supportive and instructive, rather than punitive, methods to guide children’s behavior, especially when the misbehavior is a form of verbal or physical aggression. Intervene preventively before conflicts get heated so children can learn to listen to one another, consider constructive options, and to compromise. Loving parents and teachers do their best to keep all children safe from harm. Likewise, characters in books and videos should exemplify non-violent means of resolving conflicts.
Listen and Talk
Simple likes and dislikes of individuals are not prejudice, however, as young as age two a child might generalize her dislike of a dog to encompass all dogs. Her discomfort in the presence of a very loud uncle who happens to have a beard may generalize to an avoidance of any man with a beard for fear that he will be loud. Around age three, a child may point out a physical difference in a stranger, wondering aloud, “Why is she wearing so much clothes when it’s so hot today?” Or, “Why is he wearing sandals when it’s so cold today?” She may also make observations about skin color, or a physical disability. Use simple language to explain religious differences, cultural differences, and physical differences among people. Find a picture book that addresses the particular difference your child is curious about, or that addresses differences in general. Prejudice is often based on being fearful of a difference because we don’t understand it.
Your oldest child is approaching an age of strong peer influence. A study at the University of Maryland reported that by age nine children are conflicted when they realize they are not in agreement with how their close friends feel about the treatment of those outside the group. Melanie Killen, developmental psychologist, says that by this age, “Children begin to figure out the costs and consequences of resisting peer pressure. By adolescence, they find it only gets more complicated.” So keep your conversations, and your modeling, consistent with what you want your children to believe and practice regarding civility. Throw in a few suggestions to help your child decide whether someone, or a group he feels loyal to, is worthy of his friendship. “Do they help you to be the person you want to be?” And be the trusted adult he can turn to if he believes the crowd is putting someone, or themselves, in danger.
Despite your precautions to keep horrific incidents of hateful violence from your children, bad news has a way of traveling from adults to older children to younger ones. Use quiet moments to coax out a child’s concerns about the wider world, and even incidents of hate and violence in his own circles. Point out how a perpetrator of prejudice-based exclusion, bullying or physical harm had the wrong idea about a person or a group of people. Be ready to dispel a stereotype and to remind your child that you are a resource for information, comfort, safety, and support.
Parents are an important refuge from the sometimes foreboding outside world.
Dr. Debbie Wood
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.