What kids are really learning
Kids get lessons in diversity all the time. Whether in our homes, in school, or out in the world, they receive message after message about how people are the same or different. A great deal of the information they receive will be out of our control and sadly, some of what children see and hear— from friends, strangers, in school, or in the media, for example— can hamper our efforts to help them grow up with respect for others regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, body size, sexual orientation, disability, or any other characteristic or aspect of our history or heritage that would divide us.
But there is good news in some research by Fletcher Blanchard (whose work I first encountered about a decade ago in an article by Daniel Goleman) which affirmed that strongly expressed anti-racist opinions led the people who heard these opinions to develop similar reactions. “When a few very vocal people express dismay at these acts, others are encouraged to do likewise,” Goleman reports. I take great comfort in Fletcher’s conclusion which, according to Goleman, states that “setting a tone that condemns acts of bias and hatred will, in fact, discourage them.” (1) Further, author Lynn Duvall, noted that studies show that “prejudice that comes from ignorance and stereotyping is the easiest to change.” (2)
So let’s look at some of the ways we can provide that kind of tone, one that will influence kids’ beliefs in positive, more inclusive directions. Although a complex issue, I’d like to suggest three things we can do to go beyond simply tolerating differences, instead building acceptance, support, admiration, appreciation, and nurturance for them. (3)
Children are not born prejudiced. They have to learn hate and intolerance, and some of the most powerful lessons they receive come from the adults in their lives. Actively expressing or demonstrating fear, disgust, or distaste for an individual or group based on superficial characteristics will send a strong message kids are not likely to miss— or forget. Even seemingly innocent, non-hateful comments they hear will shape beliefs about who is smart, strong, capable, or trustworthy, characteristics that are not likely to apply to every person in any group based on race, ethnicity, or class.
Psychology and women’s studies professor Diane Maluso writes, “Parents play an important role in prejudice acquisition. The relationship between parents’ and children’s attitudes toward members of outgroups 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.” (4) Teachers’ behavior is also on display, not only in the way they respond to discriminatory acts they witness, but also in the beliefs they express, consciously or unconsciously.
So regardless of the role you play in children’s lives, know that your attitudes are visible, being absorbed by the young people over whom you may have far more influence than you realize. In an article for parents, D’Arcy Lyness suggests noticing your own attitudes. “Parents who want to help their kids value diversity can be sensitive to cultural stereotypes they may have learned and make an effort to correct them. Demonstrate an attitude of respect for others.” (5) I think that goes for all of us. Let’s start by noticing the beliefs expressed in the language and behaviors of the adults children will encounter and in our own attitudes toward certain groups of people. Many of these were learned when we were young by the adults in our lives, and are unlikely to change without deliberate attention and an intention to do so.
Kids also learn a great deal from seeing how we respond when we encounter instances of bias. Do we laugh along with ethnic jokes, fat jokes, blond jokes? Do we tolerate expressions of hate and prejudice when we hear others express them? Do we advocate for respect when we witness or overhear kids expressing bias, excluding certain peers, or being mean to one another?
Schools have come under a good bit of scrutiny in this regard, with research and anecdotal reports describing not only a hesitancy for many teachers to intervene acts of meanness and discrimination, but in some cases actually contributing to the problem, dismissing or laughing along with derogatory comments or making them themselves. Many of the individuals I have interviewed over the years describe incidents in which they were harassed or attacked when they were children, claiming that the adults were either unaware of what was going on, made excuses for the abuser, ignored or accepted what was going on, or denied that there was a problem. All of these non-responses are enabling behaviors that not only allow the abuse to continue, but appears to give kids permission to hurt one another. (6)
Intervention may be as uncomplicated as noticing and speaking up. I remember working with a group of kids at a day treatment center. Many of these young people were fresh out of rehab, detention homes, or jail. Discussions could get quite interesting and the language rather colorful. Now to be honest, I never had a problem with any of the words they used except for what I used to call mean words, discriminatory words that most commonly attacked someone’s race, accent, body size, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Confrontation wasn’t the best approach to this issue, nor was attempting to punish kids who felt they had little else to lose. What seemed to work best were simple requests like, “I don’t like that word. Let’s not use it here.” Although at first they generally had a hard time seeing the difference between, say, a racial slur, and the usual four-letter expletives, I think that any time we can model asking for what we want— especially if we can do it without attacking, judging, or making them wrong— we create a reality in which certain behaviors and attitudes really aren’t okay, challenging a previously unchallenged reality and perhaps opening a door for change.
Author Patti DeRosa strongly recommends that we protest discriminatory attitudes and behavior. “Ignoring the issues will not make them go away and silence can send the message that you are in agreement with such attitudes and behaviors.” She also invites adults to become aware of their own attitudes, as well as their hesitancies to intervene. (7) This can be scary territory and yes, there are risks involved. But consider this quote from Elie Wiesel, political activist and Holocaust survivor, from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (8)
Beyond modeling and reacting, there are things we can do to actively teach kids to appreciate uniqueness and diversity. Check out some of the dozens of online articles with specific activities and suggestions. In the meantime, I’d like to feature a few that I’ve seen generate positive results.
- You’re going to see plenty of examples of bias in literature and the media. I’m not a big fan of book-banning or censorship as I believe that in the right hands, these resources and experiences offer tremendous opportunities for exploring, discussing, and learning. Ask questions to build empathy and understanding, “Why do you think that person feels like that?” “Look at those beliefs in the context of the times in which this resource was created. How would this book be different or the same if it were written today?”
- Deliberately introduce and share classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Tom Sawyer to them. (And yes, it’s OK to read these books to them! I had 8th graders who loved being read to for the first few minutes of a math class, so much so that I finally managed to get them to class on time and despite giving up the first five minutes of class to read to them, actually doubled the amount of instructional time by starting off with this activity.) These and other books offer a great jumping-off point for talking about prejudice and discrimination.
- Although far from perfect, there has been a significant shift in representation in the media today. Watch a few TV shows that ran in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s with your children (or students) and ask them to compare the reality that was portrayed there to the world portrayed in current media, or in their own experience (for example, the role of the mothers or who gets to play a doctor on those shows). Ask them to notice who they don’t see on these shows, or who they see in stereotyped roles. This activity can help kids understand cultural change and validate their own reality, and may be especially valuable for minorities who were often invisible, marginalized, or portrayed in very superficial, limited ways.
- Help kids learn to value and respectfully express their opinions, especially when it comes to speaking up against discrimination and advocating for targets of bias, exclusion, or meanness. Listen to Dr. Jared Scherz talk about “Constructive Differencing,” for tips on how to help children or all ages learn to explore and express their own opinions while respecting difference in how others think and feel. Learn why disagreeing can be so threatening, along with specific strategies and ideas to reduce conflict, build problem-solving skills, and prevent disagreements from escalating or becoming violent. Click here to listen to the podcast.
- Encourage teamwork and inclusion. Invite your kids to play and work with people who are different from them. In my work at the day treatment center, I once witnessed a skilled counselor conduct an activity with a group comprised of two kids from rival ethnic gangs and a skinhead wannabe. The three had to work together to come up with names of cars for each letter of the alphabet. This silly little activity somehow brought these three into a collaborative relationship, something that never would have happened out on the street. And if the day didn’t exactly end with everybody arm-in-arm singing “We are the World,” it certainly made it that much harder form these three to hate somebody they had just worked with for close to an hour on a shared-goal activity.
- Create or take advantage of opportunities to participate in cultural activities that are different from your own. When I lived in Pittsburgh, the ethnic food festivals brought people from various cultural enclaves together, offering a wonderful introduction to different traditions. I would often use food or crafts activities in my own classroom to help broaden my students’ understanding of the world.
- Ask middle school or high school kids to explore and discuss the breakdown of groups or cliques in their school. A graphing activity on the Education World Web site submitted by Gary Hopkins asks kids to investigate things like awareness of cliques based on things like “academic ability, athletic ability, beliefs, ethnicity, family income, gender, hobbies/interests, home neighborhood, primary language spoken, musical interest, personal appearance, race, sexual orientation, and/or style,” evaluating factors such as which groups are most difficult to break into, how many students have felt excluded, and what kids would be willing to do to build intra-group interactions.
- Encourage kids to participate in service activities. My upper-elementary students gained so much from helping out in the kindergarten that I ended up getting a whole dissertation (and degree) out of that experience. Check out books that encourage volunteerism, social justice, and peacemaking such as The Teen Guide to Social Action from Free Spirit Publishing, Days of Respect from Hunter House Publishing, Lynn Fox’s Let’s Get Together and Naomi Drew’s The Peaceful Classroom from Jalmar Press, and Activities for Teaching Social Skills, Self Management and Respectful Living by Susanna Palomares and Dianna Schilling, or Schilling’s book Getting Along: Social Skills Activities for Middle School and High School Students from Innerchoice Publishing.
- Commit to meeting kids’ needs for power and autonomy. This critical aspect is often overlooked by adults who far more enthusiastically agree to the importance of kids needing safety, acceptance, belonging, and structure in their lives. But I’ve long been convinced that many of the behavioral and social problems we see have, at their core, a need for power and few constructive outlets for getting that need met. Consider the possibility that kids who feel that they have some choice, control, and input in things that affect their lives (within the structure we, as adults, are far more likely to provide) are less likely to try to accommodate that need by hurting, humiliating, or disempowering others. (Look for resources under Kids’ Behavior or Student Behavior on this site for specific strategies for ways to establish win-win authority relationships in which you can accomplish this goal.)
- When you witness or overhear kids using prejudicial or hateful language, step up and gently intervene. Ignoring is condoning, but punishing isn’t much better. The school that suspended a child for using a racial slur only ended up giving the kid a few days off from school. What did that student (and the ones who witnessed his suspension) really learn from this reaction? While I appreciate the fact that the school personnel did not overlook the behavior, this punishment is not the same as teaching or providing opportunities for the child to learn to work with others who are different from him— a skill this student clearly needs to develop. We don’t teach tolerance by punishing intolerance, and higher-order values such as appreciation and the willingness to embrace differences are unlikely to emerge in a win-lose environment.
Let’s remember that people do not develop bias or hatred in a vacuum, nor are these beliefs likely to change without intervention and support for a more caring alternative. I’m less concerned with where these values originate than I am with providing an environment based on acceptance, encouragement, success, and love. Because the research, the stories, and my own observations and personal experience have long convinced me of the power of one caring adult to make a significant difference in children’s beliefs, behaviors, and ultimately in their lives.
One of my favorite quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King advises, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Let’s honor Dr. King and all the peacemakers of this world by paying attention, planting seeds, and building respectful, caring communities. One heart at a time.
(1) Research cited in Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, chapter 12, “More Welcome than Others: Discrimination and Belonging,” by Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001). Original article, “New Way to Battle Bias: Fight Acts, Not Feelings,”available on the New York Times Web site.
(2) Lynn Duvall’s work appeared in her book Respecting our Differences, and was referenced in Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, chapter 12.
(3) These values are taken from the Riddle Scale, originally designed by Dorothy Riddle to measure the degree to which someone is homophobic. I believe that the eight-point scale, which places tolerance just above repulsion and pity on the low end, can apply to any bias.
(4) “How do We Learn Prejudice” by Diane Maluso. Available on her Prejudice Insite Web site.
(5) “Teaching Your Child Tolerance” by D’Arcy Lyness, Ph.D. Available on the KidsHealth Web site.
(6) Reported in Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, chapter 12.
(7) Quoted in Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, chapter 12.
(8) With thanks to Tom Robinson for posting this quote on his Facebook page.
Also: Online radio interview featuring Dr. Jane Bluestein: Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King: Tips for teaching tolerance to your kids. Interview on The Good Enough Parenting Show with Margit Crane and Barbara Dabs, Jan. 21, 2013. Click here to listen.