Some days it seems like the world is falling apart, being torn into pieces by hatred. We’re constantly bombarded with news and images of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and xenophobia.
As an adult, it’s difficult to process, but then I start thinking about the kids. What’s going through their minds?
How are parents and teachers supposed to respond when children are exposed to adults, often those in authority, belittling others because of their color, religion, gender, or country of origin? Reported hate crimes have increased by 4.6 percent in 2016, according to the FBI. However, civil-rights group have found wide-spread systemic under-reporting of such acts.
It’s pointing to a trend that deeply concerns me. As parents, we owe it to our kids to look at these warning signs and take action to put the brakes on this downward spiral. We have to make sure our children know hateful words and despicable actions are not acceptable – ever.
How can parents do this? In most cases, it begins with modeling behaviors at home.
“Social learning theory suggests that prejudice is learned in the same way other attitudes and values are learned, primarily through association, reinforcement, and modeling,” said Diane Maluso, an associate professor of Psychology at Elmira College.
“The relationship between parents’ and children’s attitudes toward members of out-groups is consistent. Not only do parents teach prejudice directly through reinforcement, but children often learn their parents’ prejudiced attitudes by simply observing their parents talking about and interacting with people from other groups.”
And of course, children are influenced by the messages they receive from the world around them and this can happen at an early age. They may learn to associate a particular ethnic group with poverty, crime, violence and other bad things. Children will reproduce these messages if they are repeated often enough, and if they are reinforced by others, such as when friends laugh along at a derogatory joke or someone they look up to makes an ethnic slur.
“Children need adults to help them develop respect for and acceptance of others,” said Rachel Berman, graduate program director of the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and a researcher on a project called, Can We Talk About Race? Confronting Colour-Blindness in Early Childhood Settings. She adds, “What’s more, kids who may be targets of racism may need help negotiating their feelings and figuring out how to respond to what they’re experiencing.” Here’s Berman advice to parents:
Infants and toddlers
- Create an environment where they can learn about the differences and similarities between people of different races, cultures and religions at an early age.
- Share picture books and watch TV shows and movies that celebrate kids of all colors, cultures and religions.
- Actively seek out diverse playgroups and child care.
- Be ready to answer questions. Children as young as two or three may start asking about differences, such as disabilities, gender and physical characteristics like skin color and hair
- At around age 3, kids start to use race, among other things, to make decisions about who to play with. Kids this age may also make hurtful statements that parents need to be prepared to respond to. Take your child’s comments and questions seriously and gently dispute stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes.
Elementary School Age
- When kids start school, their circle of exposure widens, which means they may need more explicit guidance about race and racism.
- Start teaching them to be critical readers and viewers. Ask them questions like, “Are there certain groups who never get to be heroes in movies or are considered pretty?”
- A book Berman recommends for kids in grades one to five is Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester.
Middle and High Schoolers
- At this age you can have more sophisticated discussions on topics such as Black Lives Matter, racial profiling, and what they can do to combat prejudice and discrimination.
- Your older children are spending more time online, which increases their risk of getting incorrect facts. Parents need to know where their children are getting information and encouraging them to think critically about sources.
Children of all ages
- Don’t panic if your child makes prejudiced comments. It will happen. Use it as a teachable moment
- Most of all, be a good role model in words and actions.
- The best way to start is by beginning the conversation now!