Shifting Norms

Each morning I drop my son off at daycare. He sees familiar faces of his little friends playing on the floor, parents dropping off other kids, and the teachers moving about the room. When I toured the center, of course I had my first impression about whether a person seemed friendly or approachable, but I never really stopped to think what judgments the children may be making about who these people are. You expect them to have their favorite friend or a teacher they are drawn too, but a bias toward race? How can this idea of bias settle into toddlers?

The NPR article, How the Hidden Brain Does the Thinking for Us, describes how bias against race can be seen in three years olds! As a parent that is alarming. We try to teach our children kindness and acceptance for others, but societal norms seem to be shaping what is “okay” or “bad” in a questionable direction. If children learn what seems safe or normal by watching the world around them, then we need to inject more diversity. Easier said then done.

As children move up in education, it’s not like this bias goes away. Societal norms become even more prominent, further shaping the bias toward others. The challenge is this bias of the hidden brain is not intentional. It not like we go out of our way to group people into buckets of good or bad. Like the NPR article said, the brain is wired to form associations. However, associations described about context come from society, and society gravitates toward what is common, not what is different.

Embracing diversity and having an inclusive mindset has the potential to bring immense benefit to society, workplaces, and the classroom. In the article, How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, socially diverse groups are the ones that bring innovation and creativity. Those are characteristics we all want in the classroom setting, from preschool to college. Somehow as a society thought we have to find ways to integrate more diversity into our everyday. If starting at a young age we were exposed to more races, ethnicities, etc, then bias might be reduced. We can also be more aware and cognoscente of our own biases. These are small changes, but they have the potential to nudge us in a less biased way of thinking.

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10 thoughts on “Shifting Norms

  1. I really appreciated your post and the alarming idea that children as young as 3 are forming these racial and diversity oriented connections. I was a bit stunned by this because how can you compete with that? I mean by the time a child is 3, they haven’t had time to even figure out how to go to the bathroom alone, how can they already have implicit bias? I agree with your conclusion that integrating diversity into our daily lives is really the only way to teach children that diversity is ok, even good. I also think engaging in conversation with children as they do begin to challenge their own position is vital to teaching them about diversity and inclusion.

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  2. Thank you for your post. I too have a child in daycare and I too was alarmed to learn that children as young as 3 could form bias against race. Living in a predominantly white community I worry that my daughter could be forming these bias as we speak. I dropped her off to daycare today and not one of her classmates are a different race than herself. After reading the NPR article, I am thankful that one of her teachers is African American and that we have friends who are of different races and nationalities. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the opportunity interact with many other children of different backgrounds. How do you as a parent inject more diversity into your or your child’s life? Especially living in Southwest Va?!?

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    1. Hey Carlisle,
      As a parent who drops their toddler off at daycare every day, I know exactly what you mean. The most frightening thing to me right now is to wonder what kinds of impressions could be forming on her that are outside of what we define as acceptable at home. I am hoping that exposure to diversity at a young age (AND growing up in a household that does not tolerate racism or other forms of hate and violence) will help guide her as she grows into her own person. But you’re right, what do we do when they leave the nest? A lot of it comes down to having faith that you did your job as a parent, but what about the crap they might be picking up from influences we can’t/don’t know as parents? I agree that one way we can help create a better society is to raise our children well and to expose them to as many cultures and experiences as possible while we have the time with them.

      And Anna–the struggle is real. If my daughter didn’t go to her daycare where the environment was so racially and culturally diverse, that part of her education would more or less be up to me, her dad, and whatever multi-cultural Netflix documentaries I could expose her to. (At this point in time… or at least until I’m Dr. Harrell and we are on our merry way…) Southwest VA is definitely a bubble, especially for graduate student parents of small children.

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  3. I appreciate that you bring up the challenge of how to work with kids to address bias from a young age. It reminds me of a story that a colleague of mine told about her experience raising kids in an urban area and trying to expose them to diversity.

    To boil it down, when she was deciding what house would be best for her family, she found two similar options with the main choice being whether she wanted her kids in a diverse school district or the one that tended to have better performance. Ultimately, she opted to choose the option that granted her kids access to the “better” school and try to find other ways to expose her kids to diversity. While she was all about transparency with her kids, I can’t imagine how you would go about describing that decision making process to a six-year-old.

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  4. Hi, thank you so much for your post. I know that it really made me reflect on how early we as humans, can learn bias. If I was in your shoes, I resonate with the fact I feel like I would make judgements about if people seem friendly and appraochable when choosing a daycare facility– as you would want your child to be in the best place. However, it probably wouldn’t have occured to me to think of a child doing this as well at such a young age.

    As you stated, this really shows the need to be making sure that we are exposing children to all sorts of people from different walks of life. However, I feel that as you and some other posters said, this is not as easily done as where you live can limit or increase your chances of this occuring and the problematic nature of this.

    I am not a parent, so I have not had to deal with this firsthand so I really appreciate you talking about this and sharing your thoughts. I know this is something I will keep in mind as I go on in life.

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  5. Hello! I really love your points here- although I am not a parent, I am a volunteer with youth and always find myself so surprised when they start making comments about their differences- be in in race, family life, etc. I definitely agree that the younger a child is, the more exposure to different types of people the better. While not necessarily easy, I agree with you that it is important, and therefore we should try our best.

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  6. I think that exposure is a word that gets twisted too easily and has too many definitions in today’s world. Some people would count seeing diverse casting in entertainment media as exposure, but I don’t accept this as enough. I have never witnessed any public media that could thoroughly represent any of my best friends, so it will always fall short of representing them. There is also the trouble of children encountering stereotypes from media, which I would call negative exposure since it gives a false impression of other groups of people. This is arguably exposure, but harmful. The only form exposure that meets my standards is a personal and private experience with someone of a different background. Both of those conditions are important because combined they make one cast aside the perceptions and judgements of the rest of the world on them, and focuses only on the connection between exactly two people.

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  7. I’m sure maaaaany of the parents reading your post (and the readings you’re addressing) are reflecting on fears they might not even knew they needed to yet address with their children. Now, I’m not a parent, but this post made me consider my eight-year-old nephew. What biases has he already absorbed? How does my sister/how do I, as his aunt, combat these? Inject more diversity—yes, I agree—but how best to do so? Having ongoing conversations about this topic is vital, even from a young age. I’d love to see more conversations that educate parents on how best to have these conversations with their children.

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  8. I can imagine it would be alarming to discover these biases in your young children as you said (although I don’t have any children myself). As you mentioned, the responsibility really does come down on us as a society and as the people that children are looking up to and learning from to set that example. That is why it was even more alarming to me when I was shown to have biases in ALL of the implicit bias tests I have taken. I even went into the test telling myself “Okay…make sure you’re not biased” as if I could talk the implicit bias out of my mind. Even before we can change the whole society how do we identify and correct our own implicit biases so that we can contribute to positive societal change?

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  9. Hi, the way that you framed your post with the two different articles — how the brain can be biased and how diversity benefits us — was a great approach this week. Do you think that your child and their daycare are shaped by where you live? Based on your readings, if we were to conduct a study, do you think that daycare in Miami, Boston, Blacksburg, Nashville, with their different populations would have different baselines and results?

    In the current political climate, it seems that diversity is not seen as a positive. I’ve recently posted a McKinsey article about the importance of diversity for teams, which I saw firsthand when I worked in DOD. What do you think we can do to help bring about a shift in the feelings around diversity being additive?

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