Ep 176: Parenting to Prevent Bias

Christia Spears Brown, PhD, author of Unraveling Bias, explains how prejudice develops in children, even if we don’t teach it to them. In this episode, we’ll learn how to have conversations about equality in our own homes.

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Full show notes

Talking about discrimination is pretty complicated and scary…so sometimes we just don’t! We hope that if we just don’t mention offensive stereotypes or racist notions to our kids, they won’t develop prejudiced thinking. We’ll remind them that everyone is equal, and just pray that their schooling will do the rest. If we wouldn’t know what to say in a conversation about discrimination, it’s better to just abstain…right?

As much as we might wish for our kids to naturally grow up without bias, studies show that it’s bound to happen. Influences from TV, movies, video games and social media can shape the way young minds think. When young people see racist and sexist stereotypes in the media, they don’t know any better but to believe it! If we don’t teach them to think critically about what they see, they might end up with life-long beliefs about race and gender that can hurt both themselves and those around them. 

To learn more about why we need a discrimination conversation–and how to have it–we’re talking to Dr. Christia Spears Brown, author of Unraveling Bias: How Prejudice Has Shaped Children for Generations and Why It's Time to Break the Cycle. She’s been researching the development of discriminatory beliefs in children and adolescents for nearly 30 years! Through her work, she’s discovered the real reason kids grow up with bias. Today, she’s providing us with proven ways we can combat prejudice in our own families.

In this episode, we’re diving into the psychological origins of bias in adolescents. We’re also getting into how we can change our dialogue about gender, sexuality, and family to create a more equitable world.

Parenting to Prevent Racial Bias

Although kids don’t intend to develop discriminatory opinions, they are often influenced by what they see in the media and the world around them. When Black and Latino men are portrayed as criminals on TV, or their favorite video game features exaggerated stereotypes of Asian culture, they don’t know any better but to believe it. They’ll take these influences in without thinking critically, unless they’re taught to, Dr. Brown says.

This is largely a result of certain evolutionary brain patterns that have been heavily steered by our society’s thinking, says Dr. Brown. We do have an innate tendency to categorize people, because sorting individuals into “friend” and “foe” has allowed us to survive as a species. Plus, the world can be very overwhelming to a young mind, and sorting people into categories can help kids process it all. But why don’t we have discriminatory opinions about people with different eye colors? Why is it so often about race?

Dr. Brown explains that this particular phenomenon has occurred as a result of societal influence. Because we put so much importance on racial differences, kids learn to sort individuals by race. Kids are still developing their understanding of the world, so when they see discrimination happening, they start to think that racial divisions must be necessary or proper. This is not because their parents taught them to think so, but simply because it’s what they’re observing in our racially divided society. In the episode, Dr. Brown and I talk at length about how you can intervene to stop this belief, and help your kid develop a less prejudiced view of the people around them.

But what about gender? Do kids develop beliefs about gender as part of a natural process, or is it created by external influences?

How Subtle Cues About Gender Have Serious Effects

Girls are just as capable as boys are at math and science…so why do they so often believe they can’t measure up? Dr. Brown says that young men and boys show high rates of confidence in their math abilities, while women are much more likely to have intense anxiety surrounding mathematical activities. Girls tend to exhibit underconfidence when math is involved, and often don’t raise their hands, even when they’re sure they have the answer, Dr. Brown tells us.

Where does this lack of confidence come from? Dr. Brown explains that it develops over time as a response to subtle notions about female inferiority. Studies show that parents are much more likely to ask female students if they need help with math homework over male students. Educators often attribute male success at math to natural brain power, while young women are told that the reason they aced a math test was because they studied really hard, says Dr. Brown. Although adults aren’t aware of these subtle cues, they often come from our unconscious mind, she explains.

Schools play a part in this problem as well, says Dr. Brown. When kids are asked to name a male genius, they’ve got plenty of names on the backburner. But when prompted to come up with a female genius, kids are usually stumped. Dr. Brown suggests that the origin of this issue is the posters that we choose to hang up in our classrooms and libraries. They so often idolize white men, says Dr. Brown, and rarely ever show some diversity! Studies show that when these posters change, kids are more capable of listing women and people of color who’ve made valuable contributions.

A little representation goes a long way. Dr. Brown and I continue to discuss the importance of visibility in our conversation.

Why Visibility Matters

For kids who are still developing self esteem, it’s important to know that no matter their race, gender or sexuality, they can live a happy and successful life. Dr. Brown explains that this is especially critical for young people within the LGBTQ+ community. Kids who have these identities are statistically much more likely to develop depression and suicidal tendencies. Reading books and interacting with media that exhibits positive representations of life as a gay person can be very impactful, says Dr. Brown.

Young women are also often dissuaded from their ambitions because of lack of visibility, Dr. Brown explains. Girls on TV are either pigeonholed as being sexy and popular, or smart and educated–without the possibility of being both. This means that some girls stop trying to get the answers right on tests or keep their good grades hidden, because they’re scared of being categorized as smart instead of likable. The more you can encourage young women to think critically about this stereotype, the better, says Dr. Brown.

Boys have been shown to develop these same stereotypes about women, leading to sexism that pervades into adult life. It’s equally as important for young boys to see women in power as it is for young girls to see it, Dr. Brown explains. If you can put intentionality behind the kind of things your kids are exposed to, it can be a critical way to help them create more realistic and empowering images of people of all genders, races, and sexualites.

In the Episode…

With Dr. Brown’s advice, we can take steps to shape the next generation into powerful advocates of equality. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • Why some kids think it’s illegal for a woman to be president
  • How we can create true diversity in schools
  • Why we shouldn’t tell kids to be “colorblind”
  • How you can empower your kid to stand up for others
If you want to learn more, check out Dr. Brown at christiabrown.com or @christiabrown on Twitter and Instagram. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. Christia Brown
Dr. Christia Brown
Research psychologist, diversity/inclusion loud mouth, author, parent. #stereotypes #equity #bias #inclusion. she/her. Tweets my own!
Ep 176: Parenting to Prevent Bias
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