Dear Dr. Debbie,
How do I help my children grow up to accept cultural, racial, religious, economic and other differences? My parents must’ve done something to keep me and my siblings open-minded about socializing with a variety of friends without judging them for their ethnic identity, spiritual belief or physical attributes.
Apparently they were progressive. Other parents seem to hold on to attitudes from the past about judging groups of people as dangerous, incompetent or just less worthy. I’m saddened and worried to see so much prejudice in the news these days.
Keep Pushing Forward
Yes, parents and other early teachers can be powerful influences regarding prejudice. It takes thought and action to reverse systemic racism and other barriers to true equality. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been at this work for 100 years. They agree with you that prevention starts early.
We know the developing brain is soaking in the experiences of the social world as much as the physical world. When a child sees a variety of people and interacts with a variety of playmates, he considers their differences, just like their different names, to be an unremarkable part of their uniqueness. If he knows two people with the same name, he might distinguish them by where they met or how they’re related. One is “the Chloe in my class” and the other “my cousin Chloe.”
Likely your parents made a conscious decision, as you are making, to teach their children that although there are interesting differences among us, most of our differences don’t matter.
“Children are born into this world without prejudice, but can learn prejudice as easily as the alphabet or tying their shoes,” says ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman. “Getting to children as early as possible is important when you want to instill them with positive images of themselves and others.”
When children are older, they can learn how prejudice and injustice have been part of human history as well as how individuals and movements have worked to overcome discrimination based on irrelevant differences.
Start with Self-Respect
We know that taking the perspective of another is something that is still developing in a young child. Jean Piaget allowed ego-centrism, being the center of the universe, to dominate a child’s thinking until about age 7. For this reason, it is always best to approach learning from the child’s own point of view. In order to teach respect of others, a child needs to know what being respected and valued feels like. Again, parents and other early teachers build this understanding through their words and actions toward the child himself. Positive attention and gentle honesty build feelings of self-worth. Let a baby know you are about to pick him up. Tell a young child that you are leaving. Show that you remember each child’s preferences for food, toys, clothes and songs. He is learning through your care that he is worth caring for.
His worth is also elevated when you show him the value of the people he belongs to—extended family, a regional identity, an ethnic heritage, a religious community, or a pastime the family engages in regularly with others.
A World of Difference Institute, an ADL project funded by philanthropist Harvey L. Miller, came about in 2001 to train early childhood teachers and parents to help children respect themselves and others. The adults make sure that each child sees his own positive attributes and encourage the children to similarly value traits and abilities in others. An adult steps in if, for example, a girl is teased about her very short haircut. The children learn by the climate set by adults that differences are normal and never a cause for unkind treatment.
This simple approach was validated as effective as the children displayed helpfulness and forged friendships across lines of difference including skin color and abilities among their classmates.
When children are past preschool age, they will enjoy learning about cultural and other differences—how these differences shape the lives of their friends, neighbors and other people in their lives.
Start with Exemplary Models
You are already off to a good start by addressing your interest in raising children without prejudice. Your interactions with various individuals reflect your biases or lack thereof. Children are always watching and learning from what we big people do. They see you speak respectfully to strangers. They see you have close relationships with all kinds of different people. They hear you speak up and take constructive action when mistreatment is happening to you and to others, whether close to home or far away. Positive examples of behavior are much better lessons than the negative news stories.
Surround your children with good examples of unbiased behavior in the friendships you cultivate for yourself, the friendships you help your children cultivate, and the media portrayals that reflect an unbiased social world. If a character, plot line or moral are offensive to your humanitarian sensibilities, be sure to critique your disapproval to your child. “He should have . . .” is a good way to counteract a movie or picture book that comes short of showing your child how you would like him, and all people, to act.
Louise Derman-Sparks, author of the Anti-Bias Curriculum suggests making sure the illustrations and storylines of picture books help us present the best to impressionable children. Look for diversity, not tokenism. Find exemplary characters your child can identify with. See how people, or animals, or robots, take good care of one another regardless of their differences. You can look for good books at socialjusticebooks.org.
As your children grow toward adulthood you can continue to steer them in the right direction. They may be part of a youth group that takes action to address bullying, poverty or other injustices in our world. The Unitarian Universalist Association suggests team building as part of the action plan. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends that youth become well-acquainted with the people and issues they hope to help with.
There is, unfortunately much work to be done to erase prejudice and injustice right in our communities that your children should easily find opportunities to make this world a better place. In fact, you may decide to lead them!
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.