Talking to your Child about Hatred and Prejudice

Explaining violent incidents

Days after the Columbine shootings, my 4-year-old son became curious about all of the activity in our house. My husband and I had tried to keep him distracted from the news coverage of the horrific shootings and the ringing telephone. It became quite difficult after I began making TV appearances as an educator with expertise in talking to children about hate. It was unavoidable keeping the news from him. My son wanted "to see mommy on TV," so I arranged for him to watch one of these shows.

At first my son was mad at me because I didn't wave at him. He will be fine, I thought. Two days later as we were getting ready for school and work, he started to cry and told me he couldn't go to school. What ultimately came out was that there were "bad men at school and they have guns:"

From the earliest years of development children are prone to make things connect and to internalize in ways that we adults find extraordinary. Like so many other parents my experience and years of training and working with children failed me at that moment. What can you tell a 4year-old child about hate and discrimination? Along with some of the other difficult issues we must negotiate as caring parents, this particular subject can be as forbidding as explaining a divorce. With Columbine and other violent incidents in schools across the country, thousands of parents have reached out to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and similar organizations seeking a way to explain these events to their children. Basically, parents want to know how do we teach our children not to hate, how do we teach our children to stand up to hate, and how do we help our children when they are victims of hate? At ADL, we know that while we have not yet found a cure for hate, the best antidote is education.

Hate is learned and can be "unlearned"

No child is born a bigot. Hate is learned, and there is no doubt it can be unlearned. Leading experts on child development argue that the problem begins as early as preschool, where children have already learned stereotypes or acquired negative attitudes toward "others:" The process of countering those negatives with positives begins at an early age.

Louise Derman-Sparks, an educator and specialist on child development, points to three major issues that are important to keep in mind when talking to children about prejudice and discrimination.

  • Children are not colorblind. It is a myth that young children don't notice people's differences, especially skin color. Children are in fact acutely aware of our shadings and gradations, and they need matter-of-fact, simple, and truthful explanations of these differences. At an early age they may ask for explanations. It is important for parents to be equipped to respond.
  • Talking about differences does not increase prejudice in children. Being aware of differences is not the same as avoiding, ridiculing, or fearing specific differences. Moreover, awareness does not lead to negative attitudes. Children learn biases from important adults in their lives, from the media, from books, and from peers. Parents need to talk to their kids-to give them accurate information and to reinforce when their behaviors indicate a value of differences as opposed to a prejudice. Surprisingly, many parents have trouble opening up and broaching the subject. For these parents it's a good idea to practice the discussion with an adult before taking it up with children. Above all, parents should ensure their words of wisdom are in tune with their actions. Sending a contradictory message only reinforces prejudices and stereotypes.
  • It is not enough to talk about similarities among people. While we want our children to understand the things that bind us as human beings, it is equally important that they understand that shared characteristics, language, and customs are expressed in different ways. When we continuously tell our children, "See, they do that just like us;' we may be implying that similarities are the only things that make "those" people acceptable.

Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years

A child's age is one of the most important factors in considering how to begin a discussion on any subject dealing with prejudice, discrimination or, more simply, the things that make people different. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it is never too early, or too late, to talk to children about respecting diversity.

During preschool years, children begin to notice physical aspects of identity. At about age 2, children become increasingly aware of gender. This is followed by curiosity about skin color, hair color and texture, eye shape and color, and other physical attributes. Awareness of disabilities tends to come later; however, some toddlers begin noticing more obvious disabilities, such as a person using a wheelchair. Usually between the ages of 2 and 3, children will begin to notice cultural aspects of gender influence. For example, they may take note of the fact that girls tend to play with dolls while boys play with trucks. They may also begin to recognize ethnic differences, noticing that children eat different foods and celebrate different holidays or, conversely, do not celebrate or recognize certain holidays. As they begin to notice differences, 2-year olds may show signs of "pre-prejudice"-they may act afraid or uncomfortable. Not necessarily possessing the vocabulary to express their concerns, they may avoid or ignore a child they perceive to be different.

Three- and 4-year-olds begin to expand observations of differences and seek explanations for those differences. They show a greater awareness of their own and other's appearances. They ask questions about where they got their own skin, hair, and eye color, or why certain groups of people are called names that reflect colors other than what they are.

It is not unusual for them to ask questions such as, "Will I always be this color or will it change as I grow up? Why doesn't my best friend have the same color skin as me? Why does daddy have brown hair and I have black hair?"

Five-year-olds begin to build a group ethnic identity, as well as an individual identity. They can more fully explore the range of differences within and between racial and ethnic groups as well as the range of similarities between groups. They can now begin to understand scientific explanations for differences in skin color, hair texture, and eye shape. They accept the use of categories and seek to know where they themselves fit.

It is essential to keep these stages of development in mind when addressing issues of diversity with preschoolers. What is in a child's environment (as well as what is absent) provides children with important information about who and what is important. Therefore every effort should be made to create a setting that is rich in possibilities for exploring cultural diversity. Consider decorating their rooms with objects made from a variety of materials; if they are enrolled in a formal preschool program, work with the teacher to see that their classroom follows suit. Play music with words from different languages and try to introduce games from around the world. Try art projects that introduce various cultural traditions. Folk dancing and storytelling are two especially effective ways to introduce children to other cultures.

Creating an environment rich in possibilities for exploring diversity

  • Helps children develop their ideas about themselves and others
  • Creates the conditions under which children initiate conversations about differences
  • Provides adults with a setting for introducing activities about diversity.

When deciding which materials to include in a child's room or in a preschool classroom, do not inadvertently display pictures, books, or objects that reinforce stereotypes. Instead, show people within cultural groups enjoying a range of customs and activities, living in a variety of settings, and belonging to various socioeconomic groups as well as single-parent, two-parent, or extended family homes. In addition, it is important not to confuse images of past ways of life of a group with its contemporary life or confuse images of people's ceremonial or holiday life with their daily lives.

Talking to children about diversity: Onset of formal education

Six-to 8-year-olds continue to recognize group members and begin to realize that their ethnicity is not changeable. They begin to become aware of history, local actions, and attitudes for and against racial, religious, and cultural groups. Moreover, they are highly influenced by what they see around them. Significant adults in their lives, peers, and the media become an even greater influence. Cultural pride may also begin to develop at this age. As parents, we can take advantage of these stages to form positive feelings about a child's own culture. The child who feels best about himself or herself is least likely to feel the need to hate others. And, we can continue to ensure that our children are exposed to consistent messages-in the classroom, at church or synagogue, as well as at our dinner tables.

Nine- to 12-year-olds gain a greater understanding of the geographic and historical aspects of culture. Some may be moving into more abstract thinking. They become more aware of the attitudes and behaviors of persons of power within institutional settings. They also begin to get a clear understanding of the personal and family struggles against bias that may exist and are more willing to discuss culture, race, and differences. Most 9- to 12year-olds can

  • Understand racial and cultural stereotypes
  • Speak from dominant and nondominant perspectives
  • Practice stating the strengths and positive aspects of various cultures
  • Discuss how internalizing a negative view about a child's own racial, ethnic, or cultural group may affect a child's confidence.

Hate hurts

Regardless of your child's age, when hate hits home, it hurts. The events that unfolded in Los Angeles during the summer of 1999 put many Jewish parents in an awkward position with their children. How do you explain acts of hate to a child that young? Buford Furrow's shooting rampage at a Jewish day-care center left all of us-children and adults-feeling disgusted, angry, and vulnerable. How could someone have so much hate in his heart to target the innocent child for death? Offices at ADL were flooded with calls, not only because the incident seemed to reinforce the perception of a rising tide of violent anti-Semitism, but also because many parents felt ill-equipped to explain the incident to their children.

This is one time when you want to set aside some serious time to talk with your children. Generally we advise parents to ask questions first, finding out what your children know about the situation. Make sure they understand the facts. Immediately reassure them that they are safe. Next you want to explain to children that the world is not perfect and that there are people who hate for reasons of skin color, size, religion, ethnicity, and other reasons. Once they understand this, it is important to help them understand what is wrong with hatred.

Reassuring words go a long way to helping put your child at ease. In response to the Los Angeles shooting attack, one might say to a child, "He must have been hurting a lot to do that kind of bad thing." Or, "Mommies and daddies love their children and like to help keep them safe." Messages like these should not only be reinforced at home but also discussed in the classroom. Children should be encouraged to draw pictures about how they feel because, often, children are better at expressing themselves in pictures than in words. Sometimes it helps if they can take action to help ease the pain. Here a parent might suggest, without pressuring, "it must be really scary to experience something like this. Maybe your class can write letters to the kids out there (in Los Angeles)." Giving children an action can help them feel more empowered after a traumatic situation touches them.

Teaching children begins by taking a look at ourselves

Parents, guardians, and teachers also struggle with diversity issues every day. First, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and explore our own cultural biases and assumptions. What "filters" impact the ways in which we view the world? What words are we using to teach our children about their own culture, as well as about those around them? Do our actions match our words? If the only people different than ourselves that our children see us interacting with are paid service personnel, we are indeed sending a message about how we value diversity.

We should attempt to integrate diverse information into regular conversation and daily activities. Relegating this type of conversation to "multicultural time" or to a specific holiday or month sends a message that these activities are unimportant relative to other activities. We must seek out opportunities that relate to those things that a child does daily or weekly.

We must prepare ourselves to respond to acts of bias, even if they are unintentional. Children will carefully observe how the adults in their lives intervene when someone is the target of hurtful or discriminatory behavior. Silence in the face of injustice conveys the impression that adults condone the behavior or consider it not worthy of attention. We must make it clear to our children that name-calling will not be tolerated and explain the thinking behind "zero tolerance" when it comes to prejudice.

An exercise for teaching diversity

We often think that teaching our children about diversity is a long and difficult task. However as the following exercise shows, it can be as simple as peeling a lemon:

Gather a group of young children and give them lemons, one lemon for each child. Tell them to `get to know your lemon." The children will examine their lemons-smell them, touch them, throw them in the air, and roll them around. After a few minutes, take the lemons back and collect them in a big basket. Next, ask the children to find their lemons from among the bunch. Remarkably, most recognize their lemons at once. Some will even get protective of them.

Next, ask the children to describe how they recognized their lemons. The responses are always varied. "My lemon was a big lemon," one might say. "My lemon was a perfect lemon," says another. And another, "My lemon had dents and bruises." This launches the discussion about how people are like that-different sizes, different shapes, different shades of color, different "dents and bruises."

After exploring those ideas, collect the lemons again. This time, peel the lemons and return them to the basket without their protective skin. Now tell the children to again find their lemon. Presented with this quandary, the children's reactions are always precious. "But the lemons all look the same!" they'll exclaim. This opens the door to a discussion of how people, much like the lemons, are pretty much the same on the inside.

While it may take only 15 minutes and a bowl of lemons to teach young children about diversity, it takes a conscious effort and a lifetime of attention to ensure that lesson is remembered. As parents, we must provide that commitment.

2001 Anti-Defamation League