In Parents, Parents' Coaching

Are We Teaching Our Children Prejudice?

awareness months

Are we teaching our children prejudice?  In short, yes. 

Prejudice is a learned behavior.  As parents, we are the primary teachers of our children.  Our children, especially in their first few years of life, learn about the world through us.  They learn social cues and pick up information about how we treat and think of other people who may be different than us religiously, culturally, ethnically, or socially.

By understanding prejudice, how it is learned, and understanding how to face it, we can create a better future for our children in which prejudice is lessened, if not eliminated.

What is prejudice?

When asked to define prejudice you might stumble a moment.  Understanding what prejudice is and how it differs from discrimination can be daunting.

  • Prejudice Definition or Prejudice Meaning:  preconceived ideas about people “perceived as being different, due to race, religion, culture, gender, disabilities, appearance, language, sexual orientation, or social status.”
  • Discrimination Definition or Meaning:   the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.

Simply put, prejudice is the thought; discrimination is the action.

Prejudice can be overt or subtle.  How have others defined it?

  • “Prejudice is like a hair across your cheek.  You can’t see it, you can’t find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because it is irritating.” Marian Anderson, vocalist.
  • “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” Maya Angelou, author.
  •  “Do you know what we call opinion in the absence of evidence? We call it prejudice.”  Michael Crichton, author.
  • “Prejudice – a vagrant opinion without visible means of support.” Ambrose Bierce, journalist.

Considering these alternate meaning of prejudice can broaden our understanding and help us to be more introspective.

How is prejudice learned?

Prejudice is a learned behavior.   Dr. Debra Byrnes has found that children as young as three or four years of age are capable of forming stereotypical and prejudicial opinions.  She explains, “Initially, such attitudes are quite flexible. However, as children grow older such attitudes become more difficult to change.”   These negative attitudes are generally learned and developed the same way that children learn other behaviors from their parents, through association, reinforcement, and modeling.  Media, such as television shows or negative stories in the evening news, can also play a large role in reinforcing negative stereotypes leading to prejudice.

Children learn and exhibit prejudicial attitudes differently as they grow:

  • Ages 3-6: Children learn about and are able to apply stereotypes to large groups of people. They can recognize overt discrimination.
  • Ages 6-10:  Children grow to an awareness of other people’s prejudices and stereotypes.  As they grow older, they become aware of subtle instances of discrimination.
  • Teen Years:  Teens internalize what they have learned as children and it becomes part of their adult psyche.

What does prejudice mean for you and your children?

We hope that our children live a life without prejudice.   Life with prejudice, even extreme prejudice, is a life filled with hatred of people whom we do not even know.  The Anti-Defamation League encourages us to “Imagine a World Without Hate” in which we could change history.

In a world without hate, many of the individual tragedies we have experienced such as the assassinations of journalist Daniel Pearl, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Civil Rights Leaders Martin Luther King, Jr.  and Natalia Estemirova would not have marred our world.

In a world without hate, Malala Yousafzai would simply be a Pakistani school girl going about her educational goals without enduring the tragedy of an assassination attempt.

In a world without hate, a German school girl named Anne Frank would have lived a full, rich life, possibly having children and grandchildren to carry on her messages of love and acceptance to the world.

What can we do to reduce prejudice?

Even though prejudice cannot be fully eradicated, we can work to lessen prejudicial attitudes in our families and diminish its effects on society.

Just as studies show that we, as parents and caregivers, pass on prejudicial attitudes to our children, we are also the most important force in preventing this transmission.    Information that children receive from parents, caregivers, and teachers has a more profound effect on a child than information they glean from society at large.  The opportunities for repetition of the positive messages about equality and diversity are also numerous and can work to overturn earlier negative social teaching.

Educators and parents should teach children about the existence of prejudice and discrimination so that children can recognize its existence, but it’s more powerful to point out the positives of diversity.

Professor Will C. van den Hoonaard from University of New Brunswick at Fredericton, writes that simple interaction with other groups is not enough to overcome the messages they have internalized from parents and media.   He identifies the following mainstays of educational and legal efforts to combat the effects of prejudice:

  • Education: Multi-cultural education presented directly or indirectly in the curriculum throughout the school years.
  • Legal: An emphasis on civil rights, enlightened immigration policies and mandates for hiring quotas.

Professor van den Hoonaard identifies a third sphere, the personal sphere, where the opportunity for a close web of loving relationships can also work to reduce prejudice.

Tips to reduce prejudice for educators include:

  • Make certain that classroom resources reflect various ethnicities, races, genders, ages and family situations.  Books, posters, dolls, toys, etc., should be as diverse as possible which will help various students feel included and accepted as well as educate.
  • Make sure that public spaces are inclusive.  Posters, messages, and decorations should be diverse.
  • Answer student questions directly and do not minimize differences in religion, race or other physical or cultural characteristics.  Embrace these as an opportunity to teach about the diversity of the human population and the positive qualities we can learn from each other.
  • Use the diversity that exists in your classroom to embrace inclusiveness and incorporate it on a daily basis rather than simply celebrating a few holidays.
  • Do not expect discriminatory behavior to disappear overnight.  Entrenched beliefs are difficult to counteract.  Approach difficult situations with an open mind and help the parties involved to find common ground and see each other as valued individuals rather than only members of their group.

Tips to reduce prejudice for parents include:

  • Cultivate a positive self-image in your children.  Children who have a poor self-image are more apt to develop prejudices in a way that makes them feel better about themselves by putting down the differences they see in others.
  • Discuss instances of prejudice and discrimination in the media or in your personal experience with your child in an unbiased way.
  • Cultivate personal relationships with all types of people.
  • Ask your child questions that lead to deep conversations about the differences that exist between people and how we can learn from each other.
  • Do not ignore prejudicial statements, no matter how young the child.  “I don’t like (that group of people)” coming from a three or four year old is an opportunity to teach your child to appreciate diversity.
  • Make certain that your child understands that prejudice is an unfair treatment of others.
  • Encourage your children to take positive action against prejudice when they see it in their schools, personal relationships, and communities.
  • Limit the exposure your child has to prejudice from the media and others at an early age.  For example, if a trusted family member or friend regularly uses bigoted language, make it clear that language is unacceptable around your child or limit your child’s exposure to that person.

Examples of Prejudice

If we are to prevent the “handing down” of prejudice to our children, what should we look for?  Acts of prejudice, discrimination, and hate can be subtle or overt.  When we encounter these events in the media or in our personal lives, we can discuss them with our children and work to reach a broader understanding of the world around us and its people:

  • Examples of pre-judging and individual or group without first-hand knowledge of the individual:  “I don’t want those people living in my neighborhood.” Or “I don’t want my child to go to school with those people.”
  • Sharing jokes that put down an entire group of people.
  • Attacks on people, physical or verbal, based on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, age, etc.
  • Attacks against governments, religious institutions, or cultural landmarks based on prejudicial opinions.
  • Historical events such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, or worldwide civil rights movements such as the fight against South African apartheid or American segregation.

These examples of prejudice mean that we can tackle them head on, in a case by case basis, to create a world that is better for our children and ourselves.  If we can imagine it, we can create it.

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