Kids pick up on prejudice at an early age. Learn what experts are doing to stop negative beliefs before they take root.

By Carolyn Hoyt
Updated June 01, 2020
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Hosting a playdate for two 4-year-olds on a hot afternoon, Betsy Braverman of Rye, NY, decided to take the kids to the local pool. She cleared the idea with the other mom, then asked her daughter, Juliet, to find a bathing suit for her friend to borrow. "But I don't want her brown body in my bathing suit," Juliet said.

Luckily, the other little girl, a preschool friend of Indonesian descent, didn't hear Juliet's comment. But Betsy was appalled: "I couldn't believe the words coming out of my daughter." She told Juliet that the color of her friend's skin didn't matter and that people are all the same inside. "She got what I was saying," Betsy says, "and I think the lesson stuck with her. But the contrast between that innocent face and the words that were coming out of it still bothers me."

Though it sounded horrible to her mother, Juliet's insensitivity is not at all atypical of kids her age, according to experts. "It's natural for young children to notice and be curious about characteristics common to another group of people," says John Jost, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at New York University in New York City. Sometimes children find such differences a little scary and react with teasing or hostility.

Kids are trying to figure out where they fit in the world. And as children notice differences, they form mental categories, says Sarah Bullard, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center's tolerance education project in Montgomery, AL. "Kids put people into groups and will rank one as better than the other," she says. "This type of thinking can be seen in kids as young as 3."

Even 6-month-olds notice differences in race and gender, according to a six-year longitudinal study led by Phyllis Katz, Ph.D., founding director of the Boulder, CO-based Institute for Research on Social Problems. When the kids in her study turned 3, Dr. Katz began testing to see if they had formed opinions about what they saw. She showed them photos of other kids, some white, some black, and asked questions like "Which child spilled the paint? Which child won the award for being the smartest?"

The result: 35% of 3-year-olds preferred their own race. "There was a tendency for white kids to choose white kids for good things, black kids for bad things," says Dr. Katz. "Similarly, black 3-year-olds associated the black children in the photos with positive qualities, the white kids with the negative." This trend among black children changes as they get older. By 5, many associate positive qualities with whites, though they tend to swing back to being more pro-black by age 8. It may be that as children reach school age, they pick up on societal attitudes about race, says Dr. Katz. But as they grow older, they absorb the truths about prejudice and move beyond it.

Even so, childhood beliefs are hard to shake. Research has shown that even the most fair-minded adults can have biases they're not aware of. "We talk about prejudice on two different levels," says David DeSteno, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. "One is our conscious beliefs. The other is a more automatic gut reaction." In his latest research, Dr. DeSteno discovered that when his subjects got angry, their preferences for their own race increased. Think of the racial or religious epithets thrown out by people during heated arguments, traffic jams, even children's soccer games. The anger we feel at those times taps directly in to our automatic biases, Dr. DeSteno says.

Like so much else in human development, prejudice is part nature and part nurture. Natural biases can thrive like weeds when the conditions are right, and in our society those conditions are hard to avoid. "We send messages to our kids all the time, though most are unintentional," says Caryl Stern, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "If there are people walking toward you who are different than you and you grab your child's hand, you've just identified for her whom she should fear." Kids' biases are also shaped by what they see in society, especially the messages in movies, music, and TV.

Given the rise of intolerance in the world, it's vital that we know how hatred is learned and unlearned. "It doesn't matter if prejudice is hardwired or not because, with the right kind of experience, it can be changed," says Elliot Aronson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The best time to start is when kids are young, when the social categories they're constructing are still soft and flexible.

Empowering Children Through Actions

Anti-bias programs have proliferated throughout the U.S. in recent years, and today's programs reach out to the youngest possible audience in ways that are developmentally appropriate. However, as the anti-bias movement coalesces and matures, experts are finding that teaching acceptance is not enough. "We need to empower kids to demand that hate go away," says Stern.

But who—young or old—really has it in them to intervene when they see others singled out for their differences? Those who do often risk losing the acceptance of their peers or being attacked themselves. For her book Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, Malka Drucker of Santa Fe, NM, interviewed non-Jews who risked their lives to save European Jews during World War II. Surprisingly, she found that the rescuers didn't have a lot in common. "They were people I wouldn't have expected, which told me there are many paths to goodness," Drucker says. In fact, some were anti-Semitic, yet they had an abhorrence of intolerance that drove them to risk everything.

Drucker tells us that in countries where the rescuers believed they weren't the only ones, more people found the courage to act, a fact that is confirmed by recent research. "We know from studies that most people will conform to what their group is doing, even if it's clearly the wrong thing," says Dr. Aronson. "But if you know there are other people who are going to join you, you might find the courage to be the first to speak out."

Creating that kind of environment is a goal of the anti-bias movement. For example, you can start by teaching kids to speak up by using "I statements." Upon hearing a racist joke, a child might say: "I don't have the right to tell you what to find funny, but please don't say that around me." For older kids, who are more concerned about their popularity, standing up against hate requires an inordinate amount of confidence. Schools can help by instituting programs that send the message that other students will back kids up if they speak out and that even small gestures count. "One child may be able to respond, 'We don't say that,' while another child may feel more comfortable writing a note that says, 'I'm sorry for what happened; not everybody thinks that way,'" says Brian Willoughby, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Web site, tolerance.org. "Establishing eye contact and letting someone know you're on his side can be one of the most powerful things a child can do to stand up against hate."

Teaching Tolerance to Children

Experts agree that teaching tolerance is a 24/7 issue and parents need to have ongoing discussions with their children. Here's how:

Bring up the topic yourself. Point out the ways your child is unique—he may be shorter than his classmates, wear glasses, and be good at soccer. Compare these attributes to the differences he notices in others. Discuss the fact that some people think differences make other people dirty, scary, or unworthy, but this is not what you or your family believes.

Point out intolerance. It may be something you see in your community or an incident depicted in a movie. Use these as teaching moments, springboards to discussions about intolerance and the attitudes you'd like your children to have.

Embrace other cultures. Demonstrate an accepting, open- minded attitude. Read your children books showing families that don't look like yours. Take a trip to a civil rights or Native American museum. Stop the car to admire the tiled dome of a mosque or the stained glass of a synagogue.

Celebrate your own culture too. Teach your kids about their family history. The child who values the things that make him special has fewer reasons to hate, says Stern.

Consider activities that promote tolerance. One of our favorite activities is "Lemon," for which each child is given his own lemon and asked to get to know it. Kids roll their lemons on the floor, taste them, smell them, examine them. The teacher then collects the lemons, places them in a central basket, and asks the kids to find their fruit. And they do. Some are darker, some have bruises, some have teeth marks from the clever kids who bit them. Then the teacher peels the lemons and asks the kids once again to find their fruit. When they realize they can't, they've learned an important lesson: Though we might be different on the outside, we all look the same on the inside.

Practice what you preach. In the end, all the talking in the world won't help if your lifestyle doesn't match what you teach. "The burden is on every parent to build social interactions that include people of all different types," says Bullard. "You have to take a step back and say, 'Okay, we've got the talk, now can we walk the walk?'" This might mean choosing a school because it has a multicultural student population. Or it might mean attending a Special Olympics event, where you and your child can get to know people with disabilities. "The best way to make children more tolerant is by giving them experiences with people of other groups," says Dr. Aronson. "You learn to appreciate the niceness and kindness of other people, and it becomes much more difficult to hate."

What If My Kid is a Victim of Prejudice?

First of all, make sure your child's physical safety is not at risk, says Caryl Stern, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League. If it is, contact whoever was in charge when the incident occurred. If it's your child's emotional well-being that's in danger, help her talk about her feelings. Don't make light of the problem.

Then you can reinforce your child's sense that what happened was wrong. You might talk about a time when someone called you a name. Prepare your child for any future situations by giving him the words to use ("Don't call me that. It's not my name"). If the problem continues, discuss it with the adult in charge, such as the teacher.

What If My Kid is Making Mean Remarks?

Stop the behavior right away by telling your child that what he did is unacceptable and that you take it very seriously. Explain why the stereotype or bias she expressed isn't true. In addition, point out that calling someone names is a hurtful act. Role-play what happened in reverse, giving your child a sense of what it feels like to be picked on just because she's different.

Model tolerance in every aspect of your life. If you make a mistake in judging someone, explain to your child that you were wrong to make an assumption about that person, and why.

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