Racism Q&A

Helping children avoid prejudice in the aftermath of the recent attacks.

Teaching Tolerance

Feelings of anger often follow sadness and grief. Given the state of the world, your children may be exposed to racist comments or imagery about Arabs in general or Muslims specifically, so it's critical that you provide an example of tolerance. Child spoke with Sheri R. Levy, Ph.D., who studies the development, maintenance, and reduction of prejudice among adults and children at the psychology department at SUNY Stony Brook in New York.

Q: Why is it important to talk with children about racism and prejudice at a time like this?

A: Prejudice among children can begin at a young age. By age 4 or 5, most children can identify people's race or ethnicity. Between ages 7 and 10, children are beginning to develop sophisticated understandings of the similarities and differences among groups. Even though we may not see or hear about racial conflicts and name-calling, it doesn't mean children are not exposed to -- or participating in -- such acts. Also, while prejudice among young children tends not to be as hostile and intentionally hurtful as that of adolescents and adults, it's still harmful to everyone involved.

Q: Where can children pick up racist terms or ideas?

A: The media, parents, teachers, friends, and siblings can all influence children's attitudes. Children who have been exposed to the media's portrayal of last week's tragedies have likely formed negative associations about people who look Arab or have Arab-sounding names. These racist associations are what we most need to challenge among our children. Also, keep in mind that kids are quick to notice discrepancies between what we say and what we do. Be sure that your actions match your tolerant teachings; otherwise, children will follow your actions, not your words.

Q: What should you say if your child is exposed to intolerance or makes a racist remark?

A: Racist statements among young children are most likely hollow and not meant to hurt another person. You should challenge negative remarks with positive ones. Kids of all ages can benefit from learning about role models of different ethnicities or religions (for example, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr.). Around ages 7 to 9, children are able to take the perspective of another person, so it's worthwhile to encourage them to consider how their certain remarks hurt people.

Because children may not be knowledgeable about Arabs and Muslims, this is an opportunity to teach kids about these rich cultures and religions. Here, it's critical that children learn not only about our differences, but also our similarities. So while you might point out differences in dress, food, or holidays, be sure to emphasize that people in other cultures share many of our worries and wishes: having fun, loving animals, spending time with family, and so on. Only talking about differences will fuel prejudice. Be sure to emphasize that there are many Arabs and Muslims living in America who love this country and do not support the violence.

Q: How can you answer a child who asks why some people hate America or would want to hurt Americans?

A: Children may ask such questions because they are worried about their own and their family's safety. Start by reassuring them; then, acknowledge that there is hatred in the world, but emphasize that there is also a lot of love. Talk about people's volunteer efforts, the donations of food and clothing from people all over the country, and the outpouring of support by many other countries.

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