Few things drive me as crazy as adults inadvertently introducing or reinforcing stereotypes to children. Inevitably, around May or June, adults will playfully say things like, “I’ll bet you can’t wait to get out of school!” to young children. They do this in a chummy, jovial way, never considering that many young children actually love school and are bewildered when they first hear adults say this. Children quickly learn that they are supposed to hate school and hate teachers, and they learn this mainly from adults who are passing on their own school baggage from 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Thus, grown-ups extinguish a little bit of innocence with one friendly comment.
The worst thing about school – the thing that is most harmful to children – is that schools are full of adults. Sure, they are adults who love kids and only want what’s best for them. But every day, adults unintentionally indoctrinate children into accepting racist, sexist and heterosexist attitudes. It happens when the librarian asks for “three strong boys” to carry some equipment, when a teacher assistant overflows with praise at a Black student performing as well as a White student is expected to perform, or a teacher reacts to a homophobic remark by saying, “That’s not fair to say. People can’t help it that they are gay.”
Even more insidiously, projecting bias happens when adults are intentionally attempting to counter prejudicial attitudes. Thus, the PE teacher will set up a boys vs. girls dodge ball game and encourage the girls to win. This encouragement will sound as seemingly positive as this: “Don’t let the boys intimidate you – you can beat them if you work together.” Suddenly, the girls are being told that they are inherently at a disadvantage and are expected to lose. What happens? Well, in the games I’ve seen, the girls cower at the far wall and when they get the dodge balls, they actually roll them back – giving ammunition to the boys.
Here are some more examples:
- You say: “Girls are as good as boys at math.”
- They hear: “There’s something wrong with girls in math.”
- You say: “This is great! We have 2 girls signed up for baseball! Who else is brave enough to sign up! Alright! Girl Power!”
- They hear: “It is not normal for girls to play baseball.”
- You say: “All boys come to assembly today. I have to talk to you about bathroom behavior.”
- They hear: “Boys are bad. Girls are good.”
Girls may benefit from girl-oriented websites and other female social groupings, just as any child benefits from both homogenous and heterogenous support groups. But, I urge adults not to define girls in terms of how they measure up against boys. I believe that alleged ally jokes about girls being better than boys are just as harmful as the well-intentioned encouragement of girls as being “just as good as” boys. We serve children better by leaving all that baggage at home, to the best of our ability, and keeping our mouths shut when we are not sure what the effect of some group-based encouragement may be. I’m not just making this stuff up, by the way. Studies have shown that girls who are reassured that they can perform just as well as boys in math will subsequently perform worse on math tests. This supposedly supportive talk triggers stereotype threat responses, even when intended to do the opposite.
Of course, the same goes for any assumptions you might want to counter about race, ethnicity, economic status, or any other group identification. While we want to inform kids about the reality and history of biases in our culture, we have to be careful not to instill or reinforce internalized prejudicial beliefs.
Click the daisy for Misattributed Ancient Wisdom: