How can we help our children learn to deal with prejudice?
Sadly, over four decades after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, our children are growing up in a society in which prejudice and bigotry are still commonplace. Although laws have been implemented and many attitudes have changed, bigotry based on racial, ethnic, and religious grounds remains too much a part of the daily lives of children and families.
Our children are growing up in a time when the racial and ethnic composition of our country is rapidly changing. In some areas of the nation, groups of people previously characterized as racial or ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population.
Children are also being exposed to different cultures through the media. They are learning and forming opinions about people and events all over the country and the world. As a result, there is more of a need and opportunity to help children learn to understand and value diversity.
Children's encounters with prejudice are not confined to ethnic and racial stereotypes and bias. Every day, children are exposed to the way some individuals are valued more or less because of their gender or age. Young children may or may not be aware of the preferential treatment boys tend to receive from their teachers over girls. But they are very much aware that their feelings, opinions and beliefs receive less consideration because of their youth. As children approach adolescence, they also become increasingly aware of the more subtle prejudices and intolerances tied to differences in social class and religion.
The Impact of Prejudice On Children
Children can suffer from a climate of prejudice. Prejudice creates social and emotional tension and can lead to fear and anxiety and occasionally hostility and violence. Prejudice and discrimination can undermine the self-esteem and self-confidence of those being ridiculed and make them feel terrible, unaccepted and unworthy. When that happens, their school performance often suffers, they may become depressed and socially withdrawn and childhood can become a much less happy time.
It is critical that you help your child deal with diversity in a positive way. Prejudice is learned at a very young age from parents, other children and people and institutions outside of the family. By about 4 years of age, children are aware of differences among people, primarily in characteristics like appearance, language and names, but later they are aware of religious and cultural distinctions as well. To some extent, children begin to define and identify themselves through their understanding of these personal differences. This is normal.
As youngsters try to make sense of these individual distinctions, they may hear and accept simplified stereotypes about others. When that happens, they not only develop distorted views of the youngsters and adults they encounter in daily life, but they may start to deny and overlook the common, universal human elements and traits that would bring people together. As a result, intolerance may develop where there should be friendship.
How Schools Can Diffuse Prejudice
Schools should be a place where your child learns more than academic skills. They should also promote understanding and cooperation among people, not prejudice.
Here are some questions to ask school teachers and administrators about your child's educational environment:
- Do learning and problem-solving tasks emphasize cooperation and team play, while minimizing excessive competition? Children should not be placed in situations where differences in gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, and academic ability are stressed, or are even allowed to be expressed in a negative, divisive way. Rather, whether the academic skill being taught is math or spelling, or the activity is drama or sports, part of each child's grade should be dependent on the achievement of the entire group. Team spirit can conquer feelings of difference and separateness that children experience among themselves.
- Does the school have a curriculum that covers the different races, religions and cultures of present-day America? Is your youngster continuously exposed to the achievements and contributions of all Americans and cultures?
- Does the school take advantage of ethnic holidays - Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, Kwanzaa, etc. - for children to actively learn customs and traditions with which they may not be familiar?
- Do teachers have open discussions in class about discrimination and negative feelings toward others? If an incident involving prejudice has occurred at school or in the community, is it used as a springboard to discuss these issues in a sensitive, nonpunitive, nonstigmatizing way that emphasizes the common human qualities of people?