Brittany Krechter; Whitney Groeger; and Charlie Kerns
“Nature versus nurture” is a buzz phrase that new parents are likely to hear and read a lot. It can add unnecessary fear and anxiety to an already tumultuous time, as it can cause concern about the possibility of ruining their child for life due to an innocent parenting slip-up. Seeing as they have a new baby on the way, they do not need any additional stress when they have a new human being to concern themselves with. However, said nervous parents can rest assured because it is difficult to mess up a child in a manner that will have any lasting impact through a simple parenting misstep. With the current political and social climate in the United States being what it is now, raising children to be anti-racist is more important than ever, and throughout this essay, one can find some suggestions for things to do to help make sure the children they are taking care of grow up to understand and combat racism. Fear not, for raising anti-racist children may be as simple as investing in more diverse storybooks, diversifying the group of people they socialize with, and exposing them to a diverse group of positive role models they can look up to.
Different Doesn’t Mean Bad
So you’re here because you want to talk to your child about racism. Now I know what you’re thinking, racism is so big, where do I even start? One place you can start is with the toys you buy for your kids. If you buy your kids’ dolls be sure to get ones in a variety of skin tones. In the ‘Brown vs Board’ doll test, kids associated the darker-skinned dolls with lesser beauty and desire. To combat the cultural pressures of this association give your kids access to a variety of dolls and help them to see the beauty in all colors. As babies and young children, the human brain is full of grey matter which means that their brains are at their most malleable from birth to around six. While your kids are in this stage they will be drawn to things that are like them, it’s only human nature. We as humans love to sort things, it’s how we make sense of the world, and kids especially do this as they are starting to find their identity in terms of their place in the world both socially and culturally (Revill, 2014). In this process kids often will self-select others who are like them and, while that’s natural, it’s important to stress that beauty and competence come in a variety of different forms even if it’s different from you. Dolls are a good way to model this in a way that is kid-friendly and will stick; this is because playtime is the way that kids understand the adult world. Helping your kids to navigate their play in an accepting way will help them as adults to be open to more narratives. Different doesn’t mean bad, it simply means not the same and this is an important lesson to teach our children before they come up with their own prejudices or succumb to societal pressures. (Keil, 2014). As parents, we have a lot of pull on what our kids end up believing as they have no way of knowing any better until they are older. Thus the importance of raising anti-racist children should be a priority in how caregivers and parents raise their children. But, the practice of bringing up anti-racist children is not confined to just the consumption and sharing of narrative, as it has some basis in the root concepts of developmental science as well.
How the Cognitive System Develops
In order to fully understand how racism begins in the first place, it is important to know how our brains develop throughout childhood. The development of our cognitive systems starts at the cellular level. During pregnancy, neurogenesis gives way to rapid cell growth, which then pushes the cells outward to take up more space and inhabit brain structures, and eventually leads to synaptogenesis (Kiel, 2014). Synaptogenesis is the formation of the many connections between the neurons in the brain, which will eventually allow for more complex processes like learning (Kiel, 2014). From here, essential neurons that will be necessary for life after birth are myelinated to increase the speed of neuronal communication (Kiel, 2014). During the postnatal phase of central nervous system development, the brain goes through two major processes: neuronal blooming and neuronal pruning. Neuronal blooming, the mass production of neurons and synapses, primarily occurs during the first two years of life and uses the majority of the body’s metabolic energy (Kleinknecht, 2020). Neuronal pruning, the elimination of unused neurons and synapses, peaks around the age of five and continues into adolescence (Kiel, 2020).
Cognitive development can be highly predictable and universal, but some variations occur. Typically, most children learn to perceive their surroundings and move their bodies in the same way (Kiel, 2014). Similarly, they are primed with the ability to learn language by carefully analyzing the sounds coming from their caretaker and the shape of their mouth as they speak (Revill, 2014). Every child uses narrative to talk about themselves and their environment (Miller et al., 2007). But the kind of language developed depends on the native tongue of the caregiver and the themes of narrative depend on the cultural setting the child lives in. Whether in a social, educational, or home setting, storytelling is a natural way of conveying and relating experiences, discovering ways of being, and connecting with others. In fact, the recurrent use of narrative is essential to children’s socialization and makes up a significant amount of their naturally occurring talk (Miller et al, 2007).
The Influence of Narrative
The power of story is both a cultural and psychological phenomenon. We tell our children stories and that is how they learn the cultural expectation. In Western culture, this translates into a sense of self that stresses the individual and its needs, and it is common to hear stories of autobiography. In Eastern culture, the emphasis is more on the group dynamic and what an individual needs to do to benefit the group. For example, in Taiwan, it is more likely to hear stories that display Confucian values and revolve around things like important family events (Miller et al., 2007). Additionally, religious practices that vary from culture to culture can influence children’s development of morals and shape the way they behave in various social situations (Kiel, 2014). These cultural differences give way to alternate paths of development and make up the distinctions between different kinds of nurture, all serving the same purpose but in different ways.
In terms of narratives in the context of racism and in raising anti-rasist children, it is important to ensure that the stories one shares with their child, be it the books they are read to from, or stories shared verbally, are host to a diverse cast of characters. This means making sure to expose children to narratives about people who are not just white, and making sure the media and books they read reflect that as well. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009), she mentions the overall danger that comes from only having one source of knowledge, or story, to base ideas of an entire culture off of. By making sure your children have access to a wide variety of diverse material with which to hear and create their own stories, you can help broaden your child’s cultural horizons. When we do this, we foster a stronger sense of empathy.
The Beginnings of Empathy
Babies start developing the ability to be empathetic and detect different kinds of characters at a very young age, sooner than one may anticipate. This includes how their parents react to and around other people of different races. In the film “Secret Life of Babies” (Revill, 2014), the narrator says, “Babies as young as three months old can recognize different types of characters. They want to reward those that help them. And, as they get older, they even start punishing those who don’t.” (38:52) Babies pick up on cues for how to react to different situations and people from one primary source: what they observe from those around them. Whether this observation is from what their parents are purposefully teaching them, or what they are internalizing from a passing interaction between their parents and a random person at the supermarket, babies will notice, and they will learn from their observed experiences. This is something biologically hardwired into their brains, and this can be attributed to the process of “nature via nurture”. Though there have been many debates on whether our children are affected by nature or nurture, developmental psychology shows us that it’s a bit of both; making it all the more important to be intentional in our parenting, both in our actions and in our words as our children are staring the beginnings of development (Kleinknecht, 2020).
According to Chapter 2 of “Developmental Psychology” (Kiel, 2014), children’s brains are not fully grown in size until they reach the age of five, then the brain stays relatively the same size until it starts to shrivel slightly with old age. (p. 58) As a result of this, the first five years of a child’s life are likely the most formative years in determining how they react to people in the future. Thus, in the same way that you would eat your veggies to model a healthy diet, it’s important to show your kids what it means to live an actively anti-racist life. This means standing up and saying something when you witness a racist act and by questioning your own personal biases. This is not an easy task, trust me I know, but it’s important to emphasize the values of compassion and empathy within your actions, especially in these critical years of development (Gopnik et al, 1999).
Systemic racism can’t be tackled with one blow, but starting with the children of today is a significant first step. Though there’s no way to talk to your child about every possible instance of racism and the vast complexities that follow with it, you can set the scene. As your children grow and develop, they take in each environmental stimulus presented to them. If we, as parents and caregivers, make a conscious effort to expose our children to the voices of BIPOC authors, initiate a conversation about racism, and encourage positive relationships with children and adults of all races, the fight for racial equality might nearly be won. When we engage in appropriate dialog with children about race, particularly when a learning opportunity presents itself, it can have a huge impact on the way they view the world and help shape them into better humans later on. With that said, be mindful and understanding with them as they navigate these difficult situations and discussions of race, in turn also be courteous and kind to yourself in facilitating these conversations. Talking about race is heavy, but it is necessary in this world, especially right now. With your help, the children of today will crawl, walk, and run into the adult world of tomorrow and hopefully bring about some positive social change.
When people say that children are like sponges, they make a valid point. As the world happens around them, their minds are hard at work trying to make sense of it all. At first, it’s shapes and colors, words and sentences. Soon enough they’re trying to understand bigger issues like what makes the grass grow or why some kids have dark skin and others light. Throughout this entire process, children are internalizing every moment to keep stock of what makes things the way they are. And even when we think they may not notice, they do. Consciously or not, they notice when someone speaks negatively about a specific group of people or when all their favorite movie characters are blonde and fair-skinned. These things add up and, over time, children, just like adults, form implicit biases that affect their thinking patterns and behaviors. Because of this, it’s important for parents to be aware of how bias is formed and what steps can be taken with their children to consciously address biases present in society and in their own ways of thinking.
The Beginnings of Bias
From the moment children are born, their internal mechanisms are doing everything they can to perceive and understand the world around them. Much of this understanding is formed during the first year of life but continues to develop as children age. The central nervous system receives information from the environment and gradually assigns meaning to each sensory input. Through this process of meaning-making, infants use their cognitive abilities to organize the information into different categories. This process occurs with visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli. As the brain develops, the interactions of these categories work together to form cognition.
Starting at birth, infants react to light waves using their extensive visual system. As they attain the ability to distinguish contrasts in their field of vision, an ability known as visual acuity, infants can recognize patterns in different shapes and lines (Keil, 2014). One of their greatest achievements is their ability to distinguish symmetrical faces from non-symmetrical ones, which can be evolutionarily explained by infants’ need to communicate their emotions and biological needs to their caregivers (Keil, 2014). As they go through the process of perceptual narrowing, their ability to recognize patterns, colors, and shapes improves and they can begin to assign different meanings to such patterns (Keil, 2014).
At the same time, infants are also developing their hearing. For similar biological reasons for their preference for human faces, infants are also born with a preference for the sound of their caregiver’s voice and other specific language sounds (Kleinknecht, 2020). They are attuned to noticing the sounds in their environment and are constantly taking inventory of what sounds are occurring when and, more specifically, where. While this is in part due to the development of brain structures, infants’ ability to turn their heads in the direction of a sound and accurately make assumptions about it is largely due to experience (Kleinknecht, 2020). It takes time and practice for infants to get better at narrowing their perceptual abilities.
Infants’ capacities for vision and hearing, combined with their growing physical capabilities, can now begin the exciting process of language development; with it, they develop formation of internal representations of the external world. Language acquisition would not be possible if not for the key concept of intermodal matching. Through this, babies combine their ability to interpret sounds and visual stimuli with movement (Kleinknecht, 2020). Thus, the formation of vocalizations and, eventually, words. In their first year, babies make their way from pre-linguistic sounds to cooing and babbling. As their language skills improve, they start to form single word utterances known as holophrases (Kleinknecht, 2020). These transform into telegraphic speech, named accordingly based on its straight to the point nature, for example: “I hungry” or “Mommy watch”. Children quickly pick up on new words and phrases, a process called fast-mapping, and by the time they’re around preschool age they start to acquire grammatical competence (Keil, 2014).
There are a few theories that explain why and how language development progresses the way it does. Behaviorists, like B.F. Skinner, emphasize the effects of reinforcement (Keil, 2014). They argue that children respond to the way their parents or caregivers speak to them and gradually tailor those responses to fit the circumstance. The nativist perspective, pioneered by Noam Chomsky, points to the existence of the language acquisition device (Kleinknecht, 2020). This system is something we are born with and provides an abstract layout of linguistic knowledge that allows us to learn any language. Statistical learning approaches explain language acquisition through young children’s ability to quickly discover patterns in specific occurrences across time and make subsequent inferences about those patterns (Keil, 2014). This theory has gained the most attention recently, with researchers such as Patricia Kuhl highlighting the interaction between genetic predispositions for language development interacting with environmental stimuli to create coherent language in children (Kleinknecht, 2020). Her research focuses on the innate ability of children to learn any language and the importance of which language environment children are exposed to.
Based on what we know about language development, it’s clear that children are highly influenced by their environment and their primary caregivers. Something not recognized enough by most cognitive scientists and their theories, however, is the effects of social pressures, stereotypes, and bias on children’s development. Due to the recent strain of social justice concerns, this oversight is gaining attention. The kind of language that is used in their environment, particularly negative language, can determine what characteristics or emotions they associate with any given thing or person.
One thing that people often misjudge is the impact that caregivers have on the children they are looking after, especially when it comes to issues regarding unconscious bias, such as racism. As mentioned earlier, even their attention to sound and the noises around them display a strong biologically-engineered preference for their mothers (or other caregivers), so the influence of their caregivers starts right from the time the child is born. An example of this later on in the child’s development is the words and tone caregivers use when referring to certain groups of things, be it people or cookies, children take notice. There is an old phrase that goes, “little pitchers have big ears”, and in this case, it is not only referring to swearing.
A good example of this would be in a study by Linda Bianchi, Lisa Chalik, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Marjorie Rhodes titled “The Role of Generic Language in the Early Development of Social Categorization” (2018), where they studied the impact language had on children and their propensity to form artificial groups from outside linguistic cues alone. In short, the children were being told descriptions of a fictional group of people known as Zarpies, and then were asked to identify Zarpies from random groups of people later on. The part of the study that was being changed was the specific language being used when referring to the Zarpies as the adults were speaking to the children. In the study, the children were split into groups that used a different point of reference as the Zarpie was noted (some were given specific language while others were given generic language, language lacking labels, or just language completely void of identifying properties). The results of the experiment essentially showed that the quality of one’s description of others, and whether it clearly links to the individual (e.g., this Zarpie) or too a broad grouping of individuals (e.g., Zarpies) one uses when referring to groups of people can have a large impact on the way the group is later perceived by children. Children perceive other individuals who appear to be a part of the previously identified group. This study was a good model of the way that racism is developed in children and how that set of biases acts as the foundation for adulthood opinions.
Being mindful of the language used when referring to groups of people is important to caretakers and parents working with young children because whether they know it or not, children take many cues from their caretakers, especially when it comes to things such as language development. There is a concept called “fast mapping” mentioned in Chapter 8 of “Developmental Psychology” (Kiel, 2014) where children are able to rapidly assign meaning to new objects by honing in on what the person who is speaking to them is referring to. (p. 274) As a result of this, even if the caregivers are not explicitly paying attention to what they are saying, children are making inferences and taking in new information about the world around them at an alarming rate. But fear not, the best way to make sure children do not accidentally pick up something undesirable regarding other groups of people is by making sure to be conscious of how we ourselves refer to others. This means always speaking positively about other groups of people, including diverse groups of people in books and media the children consume, and by generally opening up one’s social circle to increase the racial diversity children are exposed to starting at an early age. By doing these things, we can help curb racism at the very place it starts, at home.
How We Develop Racism
Racism is something that we learn through both cultural expectations and familial standards. We as humans like to categorize things, it’s our nature, and when we interact with something that is unfamiliar to us we may react in an unfair manner. This is due to racial schemas that are created in our minds, the beginnings of which come into terms in infancy and become fully developed through cultural reinforcement in adolescence. Schemas are bits of associative memory that we create through our lifetimes but the ones created in early development often create the baseline upon which all adult schemas are created. This is why childhood traumas often stay with us throughout our lifetimes. In this same way, negative associations between BIPOC (black, indigenous, & people of color) communities developed in infancy and reinforced throughout the rest of adolescence can stay with our children for a long time which can lead to these toxic biases. This is why it is psychologically important as a parent to create these positive associations from the get-go, otherwise, our children will make their own negative interpretations of others, particularly those from groups with which they don’t identify.
Within the western context, our society emphasizes a competitive in-group out-group dynamic upon which we all strive to find our place of belonging. Unfortunately in many cases, this can come at the cost of others. But we as parents can stop this pattern! Though the overarching cultural narrative may say different, we have the ability to give our children access to a multitude of positive influential narratives through stories and experiences in which our kids get to interact with others that are different from them. Babies even at their earliest stages are beginning to make generalizations about the world around them in order to make an overwhelming world easier to comprehend. So before those associations about a person of color get assumed in a negative light, we as parents have the power to help our children to make positive ones instead (Schulz, 2015). Studies show that implicit biases go down significantly when our kids have both a broad understanding of a multitude of cultures and even stronger if they have a personal connection to a person of color (Jones et al, 2014). So get your kids to other places and make sure that they have a variety of different people they interact with at a young age, the prime age for this is between 5-6 for this is when kids are in a state of neural blooming. Neural blooming is the process by which our brains grow and expand ideas, kids aged 5-6 are at the peak of this process and are beginning to learn social and cultural expectations. During this critical period, if you set the foundation in a positive light, then you are more likely to help foster a more empathetic and considerate kid in the long run (Kuhl, 2011).
The Falsehood of Color-Blindness
As a parent, we want to prepare our kids to be good members of society and one of the most important ways we do that is by talking and discussing race with them, especially with your white children. A common theme among white parents has been to overlook or bypass the race talk in order to protect your children. But the truth of the matter is by overlooking or instilling a false sense of ‘color-blindness’ all we do is enhance the problem. Racism is not something that children inherently know, it is something that is taught and reinforced by society. That is, children are not colorblind, but they are not born racist either. It is up to parents to help them understand what the color they see in others means, and importantly, doesn’t mean. As a white parent, it is your responsibility to have these uncomfortable conversations and to not only educate yourself but also your children on how to live an antiracist life.
Now I know what you may be thinking I want to raise my child in the habit of anti-racist practice but all of this is so overwhelming! When and how should I implement these practices? The answer is a little bit here and there. In infancy, be sure to provide your child with racially diverse narratives (ex. toys/books/games) and watch yourself in your actions/words. In toddlerhood continue with these practices and in addition begin the process of having conversations about race. These don’t necessarily have to be deep, they could be as simple as “look at how strong Tiana from Princess and the Frog is.” The most important thing is that when the moments of confusion or potentially offensive statements come out of your child’s mouth, that you impliment a gentle push towards anti-racist practice. As a parent you have the responsibility to hold your child accountable for these moments but you must do so in a kind manner otherwise they won’t be receptive to it. Moving on to early childhood, be sure to continue with using correct language, providing diverse resources , and having the conversations. The next step is to get your child out there! Having interactions with others who differ from them is important in dismantling the stereotypes that follow when unfamiliarity is present. Take them to places where they must make friends of other races or where an adult of color can share their perspective on the world. When we take the time to provide these experiences for our children, we allow them to have a broader understanding of the world and thus increase their empathetic understanding. From there in the development process (ie late elementary thru high school) if you stay consistent in your parenting your children will have developed a strong sense of race and race-relations. This where the advice is actually turned on its head. Allow yourself to be receptive to their point of view. Seeing as you have set a good foundation for their knowledge, let yourself learn from them! Children are smart and often their perspective in the world gets overlooked simply because they don’t have quite as much life experience as an adult does. While in some cases this may be true, many times the societally untainted perspective may be exactly what we adults need to hear. So be open to a two sided conversation and watch as both you and your child grow from one another! Racism isn’t something that we wake up with one day, it is something that is built through a gradual process and it CAN be learned and unlearned.
In the end, children acquire and process information about the world around them from a wide variety of sources, including the sensory input they receive from the outside world and process through their central nervous system. They also get information from the speedy development of their language acquisition and communication skills. As caregivers and parents it is important how we interact with children since they are at such a crucial time in their development. Although we may not recognize it, we have the power to help our kids to grow up to be anti-racist; but in order to do so, we must be diligent about the way in which the narrative about ‘the other’ is portrayed. While this may seem daunting and rather intimidating, don’t worry about accidentally ruining your child, but rather focus on being the best parent or caregiver YOU can be. We are all human and inevitably we will make mistakes, all we can do is be loving and kind to everyone. Not only will this make you a better person in the long run, it will help to shape the face of the next generation for the better.
℘ ℘ ℘
So what is racism and how do we stop it? After all, children aren’t born with prejudiced ideas, but they can learn them quite easily as their minds grow. Thus we must understand that racism is a social construct that is learned overtime. As their cognitive capabilities expand, children are faced with the challenge of finding their identity in terms of their surroundings and how they fit into it all. It’s easiest for them to do this through essentialist thinking; with rigid categorization, there is less confusion about any given topic. But we all know that isn’t how the world works. There is flexibility in all things, including concepts like memory, identity, and social categories. So how do we stop this pattern? We give them the tools and encourage their mind to be open to broader ideas (Diamond, 2014). When given the proper tools, children can expand past naive assumptions of how the world works and adopt more productive ways of thinking. As parents we have the power to give our children the tools to improve executive functioning which will decrease the chance of perpetuating stereotypes and racism.
One of the first things children have to tackle during their process of development is self-concept. Understanding who they are in terms of their role in society is crucial in developing a sense of autonomy and self concept. The emergence of self-concept can be best described by the theory of Ulric Neisser. He stated that five senses of self emerge throughout early childhood: the ecological self, interpersonal self, extended self, private self, and the conceptual self (Kiel, 2014). These senses of self develop at different times and serve different purposes. The ecological self develops first, as infants become aware of their own bodies. The development of this sense of self is directly related to infants’ fast emerging sensorimotor skills (Kiel, 2014). Next, the interpersonal self is supported by interactions with other people, most importantly parents or caretakers. This sense of self is implicit and occurs as a natural part of social development (Kiel, 2014). The extended self involves the integration of a sense of time and the ability to think of a past and future self (Kiel, 2014). Finally, the private self is the self that develops through self-talk and requires the understanding that there are experiences that only occur alone, while the conceptual self has to do with social expectations and family roles (Kiel, 2014).
Interconnected through the development of these five senses of self is the development of gender identity. While heavily influenced by biology, the emergence of gender identity is tied to gender roles and expectations. This is a place where social essentialism shows itself as well. As children develop a naive understanding of their own biology and the expectations tied to their expressed gender, they become aware of the categories associated with those things. This is why many children around the age of two become interested in knowing if someone is “a boy or a girl” and often announce their gender when speaking with people. This process of discovering their identity through essentialist categorization is normal and natural, but it is important for parents and caregivers to gently remind children that these categories are not as rigid as they may seem. This can also be applied to racial identity as it is easy for our children to categorize in a negative light without proper guidance.
The influence of parents and caregivers is very important for the development of self-concept and identity but is also a necessary component for memory encoding and recall. This is facilitated primarily through parent-child conversation. As children’s language capabilities develop they experience a significant increase in autobiographical memory formation (Tessler & Nelson, 1994). There are individual differences in the style and content of talk that parents and caretakers, primarily mothers, engage in with their children that influence what children encode and how they recall that information later. For example, some parent-child conversations are more elaborative and focus on specific details of past events, like time and place or emotional context (Tessler & Nelson, 1994). These kinds of conversations are best for fostering children’s comprehensive and coherent autobiographical memories and are dependent on parent interaction. Thus in order for our children to foster anti-racist ideals we must begin this process by having conversations of race early on. On the same thread of interaction and social communication, renowned Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky had some interesting, and at the time of their development in post-revolution Russia, controversial ideas about early childhood development.
Vygotsky had an entirely new take on psychology. Unlike Piaget, he believed that social learning preceded cognitive development. In Vygotsky’s theory, the mind is shaped by both biology and by the environment; both nature and nurture. He realized that engaging with our children in early dialect was foundational to how children are motivated in the future towards learning particular practices. Vygotsky was revolutionary in his time, as he was the first to take notice of how socio cultural happenings impacted development. Although it’s quite obvious to see that nature forces us to adapt (or how genetically inherited traits come into play), what many didn’t take into account was how nurture shapes our early selves as well (Keil, 2014). Nurture is how many biases are created; it’s through the feedback received from caregivers that biases are formed. Children aren’t born racist, but they are born with an innate need to sort. We as adults have the responsibility to help our children to sort things and people in an appropriate manner. Though this may sound simple, in practice it can be significantly more difficult than one would anticipate.
Culturally, there are lots of different opinions of people of color, and it can be hard to get out of old habits, but it can be done with time and effort. It starts with caregivers and parents educating themselves. What are some things that you say that may have unintended connotations? Identifying these and correcting them can make all the difference in how your child perceives others. Another thing that can be done in your parenting is to actually sit down and have a conversation with your child, or seize convenient opportunities for guided discussion regarding understanding of and respect for human diversity that may pop up in day to day living with your child. Many white parents are of the belief that if they avoid the topic all together then they are somehow protecting their children from harsh realities that are not directly related to their own families. What happens instead is that by creating barriers, colorblind parenting completely backfires. The world is a bit more complex than simply just one person putting in more effort than another. Though much of what Vygotsky was saying was quite early in terms of psychological knowledge, he was right about his theory of development. We need others in order to challenge our beliefs in order to grow, without the intergroup reactions, we would never have a need to see things from a different perspective (Keil, 2014). We need caregivers that push their kids to see diverse perspectives and to respect others in their truths. We need parents who teach their children to fight against the rampant problem of social essentialism.
Social essentialism is a problem that has continued to plague our society for centuries; it is the belief that there are stable differences rooted in nature that are observed between social categories, such as gender presentation, race and ethnicity. A good example of this would be the (incorrect) belief that people of Asian descent have some genetic component that makes them smarter than people of other ethnicities. This is an antiquated concept, gained at a young age that, if left unchecked, will perpetuate and can lead to a lot of harmful prejudice and inequality in the future. But we as parents can help guide our children in a more progressive manner than these previous assumptions. Children are pretty resilient when it comes to ideas and changing of society’s preconceived notions but they need guidance in this. At the end of the day, it really comes down to you. The way you raise your child will determine the sorts of categorizations and ideas regarding other groups of people they will end up holding, quite likely, for the rest of their lives.
As previously mentioned, the concept of social essentialism and otherness is not something that humans are innately born with. Authors Marjorie Rhoades and Tara M. Mandalaywala reinforce this idea when they say, “children require relatively strong cues to develop essentialist beliefs about social kinds.” They then go on to state that children do indeed observe different social categories and subgroups, but they only essentialize them with outside input (Rhoades and Mandalaywala, p. 5). This is when you, the caregivers, come in. The best thing that you can do with your children to help prevent them from developing these social essentialist views is by just having open dialogs with them and when learning situations present themselves, using them to learn and grow in the future. Challenging your children’s naive ideas, and allowing them to challenge yours, will help you both to become better members of society in the long run.
Challenging your child to see anti-racist ideals, or rather any progressive ideas, is a simple discussion prompting an evaluation of their own thoughts. For example, imagine a scenario where a six year-old boy got pushback from some of his peers at school for wearing a skirt that he really liked to class. Your child may notice this and ask ‘why is he wearing a skirt?’. At this moment you can take the opportunity to talk about how clothes are just fabric and people are allowed to wear whatever makes them happy regardless of gender, as long as it is executed in a respectful manner. As a parent, in this moment you are able to turn a simple question into a teachable moment and impact how your child may react to such an instance in the future. This is just one example of how a simple conversation can help reverse the negative impacts of potential bias and help your child to be more open minded/inclusive later on in their life.
Making your child into anti-racist is something that begins in the home, and it is up to you as their caretaker to put in the groundwork and lay the foundation for them to think productively (and inclusively) for themselves. The foundation of this is based in cultural humility, which is the process of dedicating oneself to lifelong learning. This means educating yourself about the cultures and beliefs of others while continually critiquing/analyzing your own beliefs and assumptions. When you use the concept of cultural humility in your parenting, you raise children who are knowledgeable and who have a broad sense of empathy for other cultures outside of their own. An example of how this can be done is by learning about the different holidays from other cultures throughout the year. With that said, there is work to be done on your part in doing thorough research to make sure you are teaching your children accurate and authentic information. Part of cultural humility is respecting others cultures to the fullest extent thus accuracy is of the utmost importance. While going the extra mile with these things may feel exhausting, in the end it’s worth it in mentoring the next generation of kids.
The future is in our hands, both literally and figuratively, we have the power to be better parents than the last generation. We can turn our children into active anti-racists by nurturing a positive sense of self in relation to others, challenging the status quo of society and by using the little moments to grow. We as parents and caregivers have a responsibility to give our children the best chance we can and that comes through instilling a deep sense of empathy and an open mind. Though that may seem like a simple thing to say, it really does make all the difference. Racism is a social construct and it only gets as much weight as we give it. We can choose to teach our children to do better, demand more from society and be better human beings; we can use psychology to be better humans and caretakers.
About the Authors
I’m Whitney and I am a junior here at Pacific. I am a psych major and someday I hope to be a therapist. This semester has been unique but with the help of my professors I have learned some valuable skills about how to apply my psych skills in the real world. Using wise interventions and cultural humility I know we can work together to create a better world!
Brittany: Parents have the power to raise children who can bring about serious positive change! This project means a lot to me because it has facilitated my own personal growth.
Charlie: Babies are a lot more intuitive than we give them credit for. This project means a lot to me because of my family.
Diamond, A. (2009) The Science of Attention. [podcast]. In Onbeing with Krista Tippet: https://onbeing.org/programs/adele-diamond-the-science-of-attention/
Fivush, R., & Nelson, K. (2004). Culture and language in the emergence of autobiographical memory. Psychological science, 15(9), 573-577.
Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). Ancient questions and a young science. In The Scientist in the Crib. William Morrow & Company, Inc. New York, NY.
Jones, J. M., Dovidio, J. F., & Vietze, D. L. (2014). Chapter 7 – What can we do? Addressing Implicit Bias. In The Psychology of Diversity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism (pp. 195-198). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Keil, F.C. (2014). Developmental Psychology : The Growth of Mind and Behavior. New York, Norton.
Kuhl, P. (2010). The Linguistic Genius of Babies. TED Conferences https://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies
Kleinknecht, E. (2020). PSY 353 Cognitive Psychology [Slides]. Moodle. https://moodle.pacificu.edu/course/view.php?id=20111
Miller, P. J., Fung, H., & Koven, M. (2007). Narrative Reverberations: How participation in narrative practices co-creates persons and cultures. In The Handbook of Cultural Psychology. S. Kitayama and D. Cohen, eds. The Guilford Press, New York & London.
Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda (2009). “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Revill, Barny. “The Secret Life of Babies.” British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 2014.
Rhodes, M., Leslie, S-J., Bianchi, L., & Chalik, L. (2018). The role of generic language in the early development of social categorization. Child Development, 89, 148 – 155.
Rhodes, M., & Mandalaywala, T. M. (2017). The development and developmental consequences of social essentialism. WIREs Cogn Sci, 8, e1437. Doi: 10.1002/wcs.1437.
Schulz, L. (2015, June 02). The Surprisingly Logical Minds of Babies. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_schulz_the_surprisingly_logical_minds_of_babies
Tessler, M., & Nelson, K. (1994). Making Memories: The Influence of Joint Encoding on Later Recall by Young Children. Consciousness and Cognition, 3(3–4), 307–326. https://doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1994.1018