Children should be taught to deal with prejudice

Eight-year-old Shalondra came home from school and told her mom she wished she was white, just like all the other kids in her class. Although proud of their black ethnicity, Shalondra’s parents intentionally sent her to a primarily all-white school.

“I believe in Dr. King’s message of judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” her mom said. “However, my kids need to learn how to deal with racial issues throughout their lives so they may as well figure this stuff out when they are young.”

The parents were particularly interested in the perspective of how a white therapist would deal with this issue.

We remain a nation that views racial issues as a major concern. In a 2008 Gallup poll, 51 percent of whites, 78 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Hispanics agreed that “racism against blacks is widespread in the United States.”

The pre-judging of people based upon characteristics such as race, weight, gender, attractiveness and even height is well documented in the psychological literature.

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According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by Judge and Cable, taller people earn an average of $166,000 more in their lifetimes than their shorter colleagues.

Parents can’t and shouldn’t avoid these issues. We need to prepare our kids for a world in which prejudice should be anticipated and managed.

1. Talk with your kids early and often about prejudice. Perhaps because they haven’t yet acquired many social filters, I find kids very prejudiced in their comments about other kids and adults.

Correct your kids immediately when you hear them make such comments. Challenge judgments based on superficial or irrelevant characteristics. Keep the focus on what matters — how people act, not what they look like.

I advised Shalondra’s mom to first listen to her daughter’s concerns about being black. When kids say things that are disturbing to parents, our first inclination is to tell children that they are wrong or to offer reassurance and advice. Instead, ask your children lots of questions.

How would Shalondra’s life be different if she were white? Would she want to go to a different school where more of her friends might be black? What would she miss if she were white rather than black?

2. Be a role model for the type of behavior you expect in your kids.

I urged Shalondra’s parents to reflect upon their friendships, church, work and social activities.

Their daughter saw few black role models in the lives of her family and friends. While wanting to act as if race didn’t matter, the parents may have inadvertently denied a key part of their black heritage.

3. Prepare your children to deal with prejudice.

There is a degree of prejudgment in almost all human interactions. This is certainly more intense along racial lines, but is also clearly evident based upon attractiveness, gender and weight.

Have explicit discussions with your kids, do role plays and offer them concrete advice for dealing with nasty comments and prejudicial remarks.

Teach them how to respond when they hear prejudicial remarks made by others.

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