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How to talk to your children about bias and prejudice

Developed with the assistance of Dr. Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children's Center, www.jbcc.harvard.edu, and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Introduction
Attitudes about the similarities and differences among people begin in early childhood. Both the seeds of respect and the seeds of intolerance are planted when we are very young and nurtured by our experiences and the attitudes of those around us as we grow up. The goal is not just to help prevent hate crimes, but to help in the enabling of children to flourish in a diverse society. The best way to do that is to begin talking to children about diversity when they are very young. In doing so we help them begin a dialogue about these exciting, complex, and sometimes painful topics.

Because it is sometimes hard, when faced with difficult questions, to answer them in ways that children understand, we are including in this Website questions asked by parents and teachers around the country. There is no right way to talk to a child about diversity, or about hate crimes, but we hope that these questions and suggested answers will serve as effective guidelines.

Group of young kids

About Hate and Hate Crimes
What is a hate crime? How is it different from any other kind of illegal act?

Hate crimes are the most extreme expression of bigotry and prejudice. Ranging from vandalism to murder, hate crimes are different from other crimes because they are motivated not by greed or by rage at a particular person, but by hatred against an entire population of people bound together only by their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ability.

Why do people commit hate crimes?

Some hate crimes are committed by adult hate mongers or members of extremist groups. But many are committed by young people acting out of ignorance, thoughtlessness, or peer pressure rather than hard core hatred. That's why it's important to educate children at an early age to appreciate the similarities and differences among people.

Should young children be introduced to the reality of hate and hate crimes?

There's no reason to go out of your way to introduce young children to the concept of hate. It's best if children's early experience of the similarities and differences among groups of people is positive rather than negative. What's most important is to fill their lives with as many positive experiences with diversity as possible. Children who live in heterogenuous neighborhoods and attend integrated schools have the best opportunity to learn first hand the value of getting to know people whose background and culture differ from their own. But even children in homogeneous neighborhoods can be exposed to other cultures through books, pictures, music, art, television, and film. Because we live in an imperfect society, it is likely that children will encounter bigotry, prejudice, and even hate as they begin to move about in the world. They are probably going to encounter bullying in school which may be based on some kind of prejudice. Even if their own lives are free from such experiences, hate and extreme acts of bigotry will infiltrate their lives through newspaper headlines, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet. When children encounter any form of bigotry it is essential to identify it as such and to talk about it with them. Share your own feelings of outrage, at racially motivated attacks, gay bashing or vandalism of synagogues, churches, mosques, and other places of worship. Let them know that there are groups who actively combat hate crimes and, as they get older, talk with children about laws and policies that protect civil rights and make hate crimes illegal.

Questions and Answers

young girls We're Jewish and my 8-year-old son's best friend is Arab American. Recently my son came home in tears because his other Jewish friends told him that they couldn't be friends with Ayad because all Arabs hate Jews and Jews should hate Arabs. What should I say?

First of all, acknowledge how confusing this situation must be for your child. Help him understand that he is free to choose his own friends and that his other friends have no right to dictate his choices. You can talk with him in a general way about how individuals can be friends despite conflicts that might exist between the cultural groups to which they belong. Encourage your son to identify what he likes about his friend and to continue to see him as an individual and not as a representative of a group. If your son knows other Arab American children, ask him how Ayad is like them and not like them. You can also do this with other members of racial or ethnic groups, including how Ayad is similar to and different from his Jewish friends.

Suggested Resource: In light of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, prejudice and discrimination against Arab Americans escalated across the country. Help your children learn accurate information about Islam, Muslims, and Arab Americans so they will not succumb to the stereotypes and biases that they will be exposed to. One source of information - a list of 100 questions about Arab Americans prepared by the Detroit Free Press - is available at http://www.freep.com/jobspage/arabs/index.htm.

My 6-year-old daughter came home from a friend's house and said, "Alan asked me why I can't be Christian because Christians are the best. Are they better than we are?" I was angry that someone said that to her and confused about how to reply.

All children need to feel good about themselves and who they are. That sense of well-being is threatened when they are faced with confusing information or with an unkind remark or slur. You might talk with your daughter like this: "Our family's religion is not the same as Alan's family. His religion isn't better than ours, and ours isn't better than his. They're just different. Maybe we can invite Alan to celebrate one of our holidays with us some time so he can learn more about our religion." By addressing the issue calmly and directly, you can help your daughter learn ways to respond to such remarks if they happen again. By encouraging her to invite Alan to share in your holidays, you communicate your sense of pride about your religion.

In addition, you might want to consider calling Alan's parents to talk about his comment. Perhaps both families can talk together about their respective religions. In any case, you have an opportunity to help your daughter understand that no race, religion, or ethnicity is "better than" another, and that it is important that all people have the freedom to practice the religion of their choice. This experience can be used to help your daughter think more about your family's religious beliefs and how they are similar to and different from the beliefs of others. This can also be the beginning of your family's exploration of the world's religious diversity.

I can't believe this, but my third grader is getting teased because she's good at math. She told me that she was going to pretend not to know the answers in class, because all of the girls are calling her a boy since "only boys are good at math." Should I talk to her teacher?

Making your daughter's teacher aware of what is happening in the classroom could prove helpful. One way the teacher might approach this situation is to integrate books, stories, news, and news articles about women scientists and mathematicians into the curriculum. Another strategy might be to talk with students in general about the history of women's liberation and encourage ongoing, generalized discussions about the similarities and differences among the abilities of boys and girls.

Your role as her parent is to encourage your daughter to be herself and to be proud of her accomplishments. Let her know that you believe strongly that the girls who are teasing her are wrong. Ask your daughter if she wants her teacher to intervene, although she may feel that intervention will make things worse. It would also be helpful to encourage your daughter to seek out friendships with girls who are not afraid of being good at math, science, or other school subjects traditionally dominated by boys.

One day when my 5-year old-son and I were driving home from the park, he suddenly said, "Mom, I wish I were white." We live in a racially mixed neighborhood, and I thought he had a positive self-concept and a strong African American identity. I felt like a failure.

You haven't failed your son. Most parents work hard to give their children a sense of pride in themselves and their heritage. If that heritage is devalued by society, however, the task becomes much harder. Before you worry too much, it would be helpful to find out what his remark means to him. Try to understand what prompted his comment. Has he been excluded from friendships or activities because of his race? Did television or incidents in the neighborhood prompt his comment? Did it come out of some other experience?

It is important that you react to a comment like this one in a calm and thoughtful manner as your response can help to begin an important conversation about what being African American means to you, to him, and to others. This would also be a good time to take a look around your home to determine if the images in things like books, art, music, and toys that your son is exposed to on a daily basis reflect African American culture. Reading him stories about prominent African Americans in history, pointing out African Americans in position of leadership in the community and country, and going to museums or cultural events that have as part of their theme African American culture could all also be helpful. Perhaps most important will be your ability to convey to your son your own pride in your heritage and culture.

The other day my daughter and I were at the grocery store. While we were checking out I struck up a conversation with the man at the register, who had a thick accent. My 4-year-old daughter started to laugh and said the man sounded "funny." I was very embarrassed and didn't know what to say.

Instead of being embarrassed by a situation like this one, use it as a "teachable moment." Explain to your daughter that you understand why the man sounds different from her and that's because he has an accent. Tell her that people who learn another language first often say words differently from those who learn English first. Help your daughter think about the advantages of people being able to speak more than one language. It will also be important you tell your daughter that describing how the man talks as "funny" might hurt his feelings and we never want to hurt anyone's feelings. Remember not to ignore comments like this or trivialize them by encouraging your daughter not to notice the man's accent. This implies that something is wrong with the way the man is speaking and begins to send your child negative messages about diversity.

Recently I have noticed that my preschooler is staring at people with disabilities. I keep telling him that it's not polite to stare. The other day while we were on an elevator with a man who was using a wheelchair, my son asked, "Why don't that man's legs work?" I had no idea how to handle this situation without making it worse than it already was.

Your response to your child's question must provide specific information and help the child to see the whole person, not just his disability. Explain to your son that the man might have been in an accident or had a disease that left his legs "not working." Ask your son to think of things that this person might have to do differently than he does because of the disability. Bear in mind that some children are afraid of illnesses and think that if a person has had an illness or an accident it may in some way be contagious. If this is the case with your child, you might want to add information to allay this fear.

It is best not to silence your child without providing information during situations like this one, because that will imply that asking the question was somehow wrong. It might also be useful for you to take the lead if you see your child staring at someone, and ask him if has questions about the person that you might be able to answer. The key to answering questions at this stage of your child's life is making sure that he has the most exposure possible to diversity so that the questions will be asked naturally as part of everyday life.

© 2003 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund
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