Parents know that how they speak to their children and other adults has a tremendous impact on their children.They are sponges, soaking up the world around them, internalizing what they hear, and mimicking back those thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. It’s important that they are aware of their words and actions if they want to help erase the generalizations that lead to many problems in our society.
It’s a sad truth that by the time children enter the elementary grades, race and gender ideas already shape their experience. It’s been repeatedly shown that in these early years, girls are less likely to think they are as smart as the boys in their class. These thoughts, as well as beliefs about racial differences, actually also shape behavior. It effects how children choose activities, who they choose to group with, and what they think about themselves. These thoughts and early beliefs contribute to their long-term gender and racial ideas.
Where do these stereotypes come from? Early social and cognitive experiences contribute heavily to the tendency to view the world in a particular way. How parents speak can be more important that the actual words they use. Generalizations can send the message that we can tell what a person is like just by knowing certain things about them, like their religion, where they live, their dress, their ethnicity or their gender. Parents need to talk about people as individuals rather than as a homogeneous group. If children only hear information presented as a generalization, they’ll likely start thinking in terms of “us” and “them.” “They” are different from everyone else and being a member of that group dictates what a member of that group will be like. Hearing these broad statements, even if they’re positive, contributes to the likelihood that children will view their world through these lenses, even into adulthood. Their way of thinking about people, the assumptions they make, and their own behaviors can be impacted.
Parents need to be careful to use specifics rather than general claims. “That girl is great at math,” “That family is vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat,” “His family lives in an apartment,” “That mother plays the guitar,” Talking about an individual and using specific language steers a conversation or the thinking away from generalizing about a whole group, gender, race or religion of people.
If your children make a sweeping statement about a group of people, guide the conversation and find out what/who they are specifically thinking of, and you may find that they have someone specific in mind. You can then encourage them to consider the individual and lead them away from making a generalization. Bear in mind though, that early on, children speak out in this way because they’re “testing the waters,” to see if their thinking is correct. Your reply as a parent is valuable at this point, so be aware of the words you use when you respond.
Obviously, parents can’t control their children’s exposure to all instances of gender and racial stereotyping they’ll likely experience during their day, but parents do have a significant influence in setting the stage for and accepting and understanding a healthy set of societal values and norms. Children are listening, watching, learning, and developing their sense of how the world works and adults need to understand that every interaction with them counts, from their tender young age through their teens and into young adulthood. Parents can launch healthy, compassionate, caring offspring into the community and the world, with a point of view that challenges rather than sanctions the stereotyped perspective of the people and situations they may encounter. To paraphrase the song, we canteach our children well.