How we can unlearn unconscious bias for kinder parenting
In the months before I gave birth to my daughter, I became aware of many societal stereotypes or “biases” I had previously taken little notice of. If you have ever shopped for baby clothes, you will be aware of the great pink versus blue divide that dictated my child’s identity long before she was born.
After my daughter arrived, these biases seemed to spring up everywhere: the messages in the books she read, the characters in her favourite television series, the skin colour of her dolls, the gender divide in her ballet class and on and on. Of course, I could choose books with more inclusive messaging and buy dolls with a variation of skin tones, but I often felt these unexamined stereotypes were so entrenched in society that it felt impossible to even notice everyone.
As a toddler she fell in love with a television series centred around a “pretty” fairy and her best friend, an adventurous boy elf who makes and fixes things. I couldn’t help but feel frantic about the sort of messages she was picking up on, even before she had properly learned to speak.
The fact is, we all carry certain biases, whether we’re aware of them or not. And these beliefs are formed very, very early in childhood. Psychologists believe children start making these kinds of judgements from as early as six months of age, when babies begin identifying in-group versus out-group associations, such as faces that are familiar to them. By the age of three, children are forming judgements about how people behave.
Of course, children don’t have the ability to make reasoned, rational judgements about everybody on an individual level, so they use associations instead. For example, because of a television show they watch they might learn that a girl’s job is to look “pretty” while boys are more adventurous and capable.
Quite quickly, these associations become entrenched and can turn into deep-rooted prejudices. Notions of superior versus inferior don’t necessarily manifest because an adult makes a remark about skin colour, for example, but usually because kids are exposed to one group more, and therefore it becomes the norm and thus their preference. When a child grows up in a world where all the characters in books and television programmes are white, where the skin colour of their dolls is white and where there are mostly white kids in their class, whiteness becomes the norm. Without examining the thought patterns and interpretations that spring from such a reality, racist and prejudiced ideas can form.
A large part of the concern is that unconscious biases are not immediately obvious, because they are, as the name suggests, implicit, either because people are not aware of their biases or they don’t want to voice those biases because of how society might view them. We like to think of ourselves as objective and open-minded, but well-meaning people can also hold unconscious biases that run counter to their values.
Even the nicest people are not immune to internalising the stereotypes we absorb from the world around us.
The challenge, then, is to first spot and then interrupt our biases so that we can act more often in a way that aligns with our values.
As a parent, my worry is that I might pass my own unexamined biases onto my child. I don’t ever want my daughter to feel limited by what she might achieve because she is a girl, and I would be horrified if she ever felt superior to someone else.
That is why it is so important to become aware of — and reflect on — our biases. It must be an ongoing process of educating and checking in on ourselves, too.
Start by examining yourself
Be honest with yourself about where you might hold unconscious biases. To admit that you have such biases isn’t to dispute your values, but to recognise that your values compete with all the cultural messaging and stereotypes you absorb from the world around you.
It might help to ask yourself these five questions:
- What kinds of variety do we have in our family?
- Who do we host at home for social gatherings?
- Does my child see diversity in authority figures? If not, how can I support change?
- Does the media we consume portray diverse characters?
- Do we use media as a chance to discuss diversity and inclusion?
Consider, too, how you communicate the differences you do see — do you mention a person’s race before other characteristics? Fleeting comments like this accumulate over time and form a picture in your child’s mind of “us versus them”.
Assess your social media feed
Unconscious biases flourish in the echo chambers that are our social media feeds. Online, we form communities, often surrounding ourselves with people who talk like us, think like us, earn like us and act like us. This sort of filtering enables confirmation bias as we constantly hear our views being echoed back to us. When we exist in these bubbles, not only do we filter out the voices of others and therefore miss out on a world of variety, but the fear we might hold against people who do not belong to our group is heightened.
Be honest with your kids
Cultural messages are everywhere and your kids are like sponges, constantly picking up cues from parents, teachers, television and media. You can’t control everything they absorb, but you can be honest with them about both implicit and explicit biases that exist in their world.
Instead of ignoring conversations around diversity, race and equality because they are uncomfortable and often complex, approach them in an age-appropriate way. This might look like answering your child’s awkward questions about a disabled person while you’re in public, or reading books that have diverse characters and families. It’s never too young to start talking to your child about diversity; start very simply and be open to all of their questions.
If your child asks why someone looks different to them, don’t shush them for being rude; take the time to answer their curiosity. Children need tools to help them express what they are seeing; they need to understand that it’s OK to see differences, but it’s not OK to treat people differently based on those differences. Showing your child the difference between right and also wrong builds their confidence so they can speak up for themselves and others when it’s needed.
Embracing diversity and acceptance allows children to absorb their world with kindness and identify with individuals who are different from them. If you don’t acknowledge differences, you fail to prepare your child to live in a diverse society.
Teach the value of diversity
Learning about diversity improves a child’s capacity to appreciate many different viewpoints and nurtures their ability for empathy and compassion for others.
The important lesson is “different from” doesn’t equal “less than”. There are plenty of opportunities to emphasise the value of racial and cultural diversity to your child, especially for school-age children, who learn about other cultures in the classroom.
Talk to your child about the benefit of bringing lots of different minds together; point out their friendships with kids from different ethnic and racial backgrounds; teach them about where the food they eat comes from; offer plenty of opportunity to mix with kids who are different from them. Even very young children can grasp that there is magic in difference, that the world would be a boring place if we were all the same.
Seek out diverse media and toys
Be mindful of the toys you have in your home and the characters in your children’s favourite books and television shows. It might sound like a small thing, but they are subtle signals to your child of the types of people you accept.
Some of my new favourite books include Come Over To My House by Eliza Hull and Sally Rippin and illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett, My Name is Malala by Malala Yousafzai, Back On Country: Welcome to Our Country by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy and How to Make a Better World by Keilly Swift. For babies and toddlers, I love the old favourite Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.