Prejudice Can Be Prevented Through Early Intervention
> 2/27/2007 11:31:44 AM

Young children generally provide impressions of purity and innocence sheltered from the conflicts and biases of the adult world. But the processes by which we judge, exclude and even harm others begin in childhood, and our own behaviors often mirror those of our elders. Kids are very much at risk for both damaging generalizations that undermine their sense of self and direct personal attacks. And of course, children who experience prejudice are much more likely to turn to bullying themselves.

Child-development expert Melanie Killen asserts that, while there is universal agreement among young children that singling someone out based on his or her gender, skin color or appearance is inappropriate and hurtful, they often unknowingly operate from unstated stereotypes, equating certain personal characteristics or tastes with membership in an involuntary social group. As an example, some pre-teens begin to believe that it is ok to exclude certain individuals from events because differences in ethnicity leave them less likely to enjoy the same sorts of things. Given example: white child believes it justified to refrain from inviting black peers to a party because they "like different types of music." While such behavior may not be intended to belittle their peers, these kids act on nearly-universal stereotypes for which they find confirmation in the outside world. When one already believes a certain generalization to be true, he or she is then much more likely to see it backed up by otherwise insignificant behavior patterns. When a child sees an Asian-American peer scoring higher on a test, this child may begin to believe the common stereotype regarding the obsessive study habits of Asian children. If a white child notices an African-American classmate earning lower grades, the opposite belief may be reinforced. In turn, the kids judged by these stereotypes often feel a counterintuitive need to conform to the expectations contained within.

One should also remember that racial prejudice is in no way the only kind. Blatant disrespect toward children who are overweight, have learning disabilities or come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is just as common. Adolescents who are openly homosexual or believed to be gay often endure some of the most destructive bullying, and the state of New Jersey's Supreme Court recently issued a ruling ordering schools to offer special protections to gay students who suffer personal threats and harassment at the hands of their peers.

While one may assume that dramatic conflict between peers emerges with the hormonal and identity changes that make up puberty, kids begin to make judgements as early as preschool, when they become increasingly aware of gender identity and the stereotypes that come along with it. According to popular opinion, prejudice is a value most often learned and reinforced at home, but it can clearly affect relationships at school and shape a person's disposition. Children learn by example, and they are usually more susceptible to parental influence than that of their teachers. Older studies suggest that, in particular, the prejudices of fathers are very often transmitted to their sons. But new information indicates that a child's home life is only one of many potential sources for bias. Where stereotypes are an unavoidable element of the mass media (particularly in advertising, when campaigns aim to appeal to large swaths of people with sometimes degrading generalizations), they can directly affect the opinions of others, particularly children who are more susceptible to suggestive manipulation. And children with intolerant peers are more likely to adopt the same attitudes. While schools should take time to gently educate kids about the nature of discrimination and illuminate why it's counterproductive, that essential lesson must start at home. There are fun, easy ways to explain the many differences among people to kids without lecturing them on morality or inducing feelings of guilt. Some parents understandably want to wait until the time is right to concern kids with mature themes like these, but the lesson does not need to spring from a hurtful incident. Talking to kids earlier might allow them to prevent such problems altogether.

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