How to Raise a Racist, Sexist, Ageist, Sizeist, Prejudiced Child
Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman
Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Sizeism. Prejudice is ugly and transferable.
After Grandmother, Gayle Quinnell, declared that “Barack Obama is an Arab” during a John McCain rally (to his dismay), and justified that this, albeit false, information was good reason for her prejudice reaction to the next possible president of the United States, I cringed. No matter what your political affiliation, it’s these kinds of statements that go against positive forward movement in the United States and the rest of the world. What further disturbed me was, in an impromptu interview with Ms. Quinnell after the rally, she bragged that this is the kind of information she was freely feeding her children. Children are impressionable and prejudice is transferable.
Know anyone like this? Have you seen it before?
Here are just a few ways that people teach children how to be prejudice—whether we’re talking about racism, sexism, ageism or any other “ism” you can think of:
(1) It’s in your physical reactions: Even young children and babies can feel the difference when a parent holds them tighter in a neighborhood that makes them uncomfortable or around a person that makes them squeamish. Imagine that every time a parent opens the door to receive a package from a black UPS delivery person, s/he is terse, jittery, rude, or close-bodied but every time a parent opens the door for a white UPS delivery person, s/he is positive, kind, and relaxed. You might think that children won’t pick up on this—but next to you, your children probably can sense body changes in you fastest and easiest. The message becomes clear; “Black people make my parents feel uncomfortable, therefore they must be bad.”
(2) It’s in your choice of words: Everything that comes out of your mouth when your children are around is likely heard—even if you don’t think it is. That means that what you shout at the TV, how you explain who you’re voting for in the upcoming election and what you say about other drivers while in your car may just be imbedded in a young child’s lexicon forever. One of my coaching clients mentioned one day that they were in their traffic with their 3 year old when they stopped short. Wile the parent said nothing, the youngster exclaimed, “Old people shouldn’t drive!” Now, where do you think she heard that before?
(3) It’s in your reactions towards them: When your children say something rude or prejudice, the way you react is worth a thousand words. For example, when a male teacher came to me and said that one of his 5 year old male students, while watching a female classmate demonstrate a skill in class, said “blond girls are airheads,” he couldn’t help but laugh. He had heard the same statement from the boy’s father while he was—get this—cooing his 2 year old daughter. Our laughter only reinforces these statements and adds fuel to the fire.
(4) It’s in your choices: Here’s a very subtle one rooted in the past and caused many arguments in my house when I was young and wanted to do whatever my brothers did. If you choose to allow your boys to do things that you declare your girls shouldn’t do or can’t do, you are brewing up stereotyping and prejudice. So, for example, one of my girls from my preteen coaching group, Sassy Sisterhood, said in group, “Whenever we need to move the chairs and desks around in class, my teacher only picks the boys.” What does that say to the girls?
(5) It’s in the way you take responsibility : Upon hearing children say prejudice remarks, you can either choose to take responsibility or not. Denial is certainly a strong reaction. Many people believe that children can’t understand what is being said or done—but while they may not process it all in the same way as an adult, they do indeed process it. Shrugging off responsibility for racism, sexism, sizeism, or ageism, is not helpful. You are right—they may not have gotten it from you—but it still remains our responsibility to teach them the right way to react to others, isn’t it?
(6) It’s in the way you accept yourself: Do you look in the mirror and bash your “fat thighs” [fat=bad] or swear at your “old wrinkly skin” [old=bad]? Do you joke with your family over the holiday table about needing to fix your “huge Italian nose” or your “Asian eyelids” [Race=Different=Bad]? You are your children’s role models. Your children hear this—they see it—and they process it. When we don’t accept what makes us who we are, how can we expect our children to accept themselves? In this case, parents are teaching children to reject these features in themselves as well as in others.
(7) It’s in who surrounds them: You probably heard the statement “surround yourself with positive people.” When it comes to children they tend to become similar to the people with whom they spend time—it’s part of positive assimilation with a group. Therefore, when you surround your children with people who make statements laced with prejudice or act or react with prejudice motives, your children have a great chance of adopting similar prejudices. One boy, age 7, told me that his Uncle kept calling him a redneck since the family moved to Texas a year before. He didn’t really know what it meant, but from what his Uncle said, he gleaned that it wasn’t a good thing. The boy was actually having trouble making friends and was certain he wanted to move back to New York.
As parents, it’s vital that we first admit when there’s a problem and then work to take responsibility and correct it. Watch your actions, your reactions, and your words. Remember to stop generalizing about groups of people—it sells others short and robs your children of learning from others and enjoying the individual gifts they bring to the table. It also shoved your children in a corner and causes them to be narrow-minded.
Surround your children with people of unique backgrounds who celebrate themselves and where they have come from so that your children are more likely to adopt a more accepting, open-minded, and global worldview. We must find role models that don’t fail our children. And finally, talk to your children about prejudice—tell them how you feel about it—your family values and why prejudice is limiting both to others and to oneself.
When it comes down to it, parents and educators must be sensitive to the transference of prejudice is they are going to stop the cycle.
I’m very interested in your comments and your experiences with children and prejudice. Please comment below.
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