Reflecting Upon Our Own Biases: All Ages

The Work Continues

No matter how open-minded or accepting we believe ourselves to be, and no matter how good a job we think we are doing when it comes to raising tolerant children, this fact remains: We all carry prejudice and biases.

The personal biases we hold as parents significantly influence what we teach, and don't teach, our children about valuing difference.

Some of us may have internalized negative attitudes about our identity groups because of racism and discrimination that we experienced growing up. As such, we sometimes pass these negative attitudes along to our children, or we are reluctant to have open, honest dialogue about discrimination with our children because these conversations are too painful.

Others of us may have been raised in families where parents and other relatives conveyed racist and discriminatory attitudes about other groups of people. Even if we do not openly display such behavior, it may affect our beliefs about others on a subconscious level. Knowingly or unknowingly, we can pass along many of these unspoken beliefs to our own children.

Simply living in a society in which discrimination — at times, legal — has played such a prominent role affects us all on some level.

We know that biases are learned. We also know that we as parents impart many of the most important, lasting lessons in our children's lives. If we hope to pass on lessons that emphasize acceptance and tolerance, we have to be willing to live those values. This calls on us to take on the crucial work of reflecting upon and addressing our personal biases. It is work that is rarely easy — and work that must be ongoing.


'It Goes Against My Feelings'

A 35-year-old woman in Minnesota who asked that her name not be used says teaching her 2-year-old son to value diversity is an important part of her parental responsibility.

She works as a public school teacher in an area of the state that has a large Latino population. Growing up in a suburban Minneapolis neighborhood, the woman, who is white, says she did not encounter a lot of diversity, nor did her parents discuss the issue much.

"My dad's family was actually pretty racist, but my mom was quick to tell us why what we said was wrong if we spoke badly about other people."

She sees similarities in her own household, describing her husband's strong and negative beliefs about diversity as very different from her own.

"He will often make negative remarks about the Hispanics in our community. He believes the stereotype that all Hispanics are lazy, and he says these things around our son, which makes me very nervous about what (our son) will think about other children when he starts school."

As a public school teacher, she believes she has learned a lot about stereotypes by simply looking at students she works with who regularly prove them wrong. She considers herself to be very accepting of diversity and hopes to teach her son not to take in messages that stereotype groups of people.

"I don't want my son to think it's OK to think certain groups of people are all one way," she says.

She admits, however, that becoming a mother and making decisions for her child have caused her to question some of her attitudes, especially regarding her son's education.

"There are many parents in our community who are afraid that the needs of so many ESL students in the district's schools may jeopardize their children's educational needs," she says.

"I know that when a majority of kids aren't getting it, they slow the lessons down to accommodate kids that need more help. I am considering placing (my son) in a private school when it's time for him to go to school. I want my son to get a good education, and I just don't want to put him in the middle. Knowing that I'm having these thoughts makes me very uncomfortable, because it goes against my feelings that people are equal and that diversity is a good thing."

She has about three years before she'll have to make a decision about where to enroll her son in school and hopes to find a solution that doesn't go against her beliefs.

"It's something we'll have to figure out. If we do choose private school, I hope he will still be exposed to some diversity, and if not in school, maybe in some outside activities."


A Difficult Conversation to Have

Malynda Coleman of Arizona is a 31-year-old mother of two daughters and a son, ages 7, 4 and almost 1.

While Malynda, who is African American, believes parents should teach children the importance of valuing those who are different from themselves, she has yet to bring the topic up with her own children.

"We haven't gone over it yet because it hasn't been an issue," she says. The topic was, however, an issue during Malynda's childhood. For that reason, Malynda expects talking about racism and discrimination with her own kids may be difficult.

"When I grew up, there was a lot of prejudice in Arizona. I went to school with mostly white kids, and sometimes I did feel like people treated me differently," she says. "But I probably wouldn't bring it up to my kids until they bring it up to me."

While Malynda has yet to discuss issues of racism and discrimination with her children, she believes it is important to reinforce their African American heritage at home - especially because the children attend schools that are predominantly white.

"I buy books and games that talk about who we are," she says. "I make sure they have baby dolls to play with that come in all the different skin tones, because I want them to be able to see that beauty is in all colors. I teach them about different things that blacks have done, like black inventors."

She adds, "I want my kids to know who we are and where we are now, but I guess without making them think about some of the things that I had to go through when I grew up. Hopefully they won't really have to experience those things."


Expert Q&A

Kerby T. Alvy, founder and executive director of the California-based Center for the Improvement of Child Caring, answers questions about how parents' biases and experiences with discrimination affect the raising of their children, and why, when it comes to bias, self-reflection is an important parenting responsibility.


How do parents' own biases impact their children?

Alvy: Much of the time this occurs unconsciously. Parents, in their own behavior - especially facial expressions and posture and body language - convey a lot that kids see. Other times, it can be more obvious, when parents actually talk about their biases out loud. Parents may tell children they don't want them associating with a certain group of people. For some, prejudice can be a family value.

There are also times when parents participate in ethnic self-disparagement. That happens often in groups where negative attitudes from society have affected the way people see and feel about themselves. Parents sometimes perpetuate those attitudes with their children. You see this, for example, in an African American family that looks down upon being "too dark." It is possible to have prejudice against your own.


What happens when parents are not on the same page about what to teach their children about respect for differences?

Alvy: Because bias is learned within the context of intimacy - family relationships are intimate relationships - children can feel some loyalty to uphold negative attitudes if these are the attitudes that even one parent conveys. When parents have different attitudes, those mixed messages put the child in a difficult position. It's important that parents are united about how they want their children to feel about other people and how they want them to think about differences.


Reflecting upon personal bias can mean admitting or acknowledging shortcomings - and admitting that you need help to address those issues. Is this a difficult thing to get parents to do?

Alvy: I think parents in general are interested in being educated. They already have made this commitment to bring up another human. Sometimes that involves training. I believe training is something that parents deserve - it's their right. And it isn't just something for those who are having trouble. It's for all of us.

I think that when you approach it from the view that education and training are what parents need and deserve and not something that is needed because parents have somehow gone wrong, parents are more open to doing the work.

It is honorable for parents to acknowledge that they have bias, and this is not something to be ashamed of. We are all products of this marvelous society; we are products of what we learned as just little kids, before we developed critical faculties. It is impossible for anyone to have been brought up in the United States without having been influenced by racist attitudes and practices.

Parents should not blame themselves but rather accept that fact as the baseline and then be vigilant about always asking ourselves if we are coming from a place of racism or stereotyping. Doing that and asking those questions takes work from all of us.


How can parents be encouraged to address and assess their own biases? What benefits can they expect from doing that work?

Alvy: I believe the biggest challenge of humankind is the ability to accept difference. We need to let parents know that this is a very important issue, even more in our time today than in previous times, as the world and as our cities become more pluralistic.

It's something parents need to be aware of for humanitarian and practical reasons. Most kids are going to school with people from different backgrounds. And for those who are not, for those who are in segregated areas, it's even more important to highlight the issue of out-group relationships.

Parents have to know that it is very important for kids to get along for their own educational advancement. Also, today's workplace is a pluralistic workplace. No matter what our jobs are, we will find ourselves working with people from all different backgrounds. Group work and group decision-making also are an important part of today's workplace. We have to know how to interact with all kinds of people for that to work.

The bottom line is that we as parents should recognize that it is educationally practical and economically practical to lay a foundation for acceptance and tolerance.


A Reflection Exercise

Explore your experiences with and attitudes about difference by asking yourself these questions.

  1. The first time I became aware of differences was when ...
  2. As I was growing up, my parent(s) taught me that people who were different from us were...
  3. As I was growing up, my parent(s) taught me that people who were like us were ...
  4. A time I was mistreated because of my own difference was when ...
  5. A time I mistreated someone for being different was when ...
  6. I feel most comfortable when I am around people who ...
  7. I feel least comfortable when I am around people who ...
  8. The memories I have of differences affect my parenting by ...