Earlier this week I recommended this article from the Education Carnival. Scott Elliot writes about race and young children. He refers to a study by Ron Katsuyama, a professor at the University of Dayton.
According to his study, kindergarten teachers assumed that their children were colorblind, but based on their reaction to picturs of children of different races, he found that they did show distinct preferences for one race over another. However, if the children attended integrated schools, this was less likely to happen. This seems to me to add some support to the notion that a lack of familiarity contributes to prejudices. Mr. Elliot says that Mr. Katsuyama also concluded that
“… some cultural or racial tension is natural. Programs like Reaching Our Children aim to impart skills to children to deal with others when tension arises.
“Some conflict may be inevitable when people of diverse backgrounds interact,” he said. “It’s the working through conflict that leads to greater understanding and appreciation of differences.”
Scott Elliot draws some conclusions I agree with, and some I don’t. I think diversity is important and it’s good for kids to be around people who look and act differently from what they are used to. Scott says this proves diverse schools are important. I don’t think the government should make it their business to bus kids from one district into another one, for several reasons. Scott also says “—It’s up to us, as adults, to create change. Your kids, even your very young kids, observe you much more closely than you might notice. They internalize your preferences and make them their own. They want to be like you.” This is true as far as it goes, of course, but it doesn’t go as far as most people think it does. Observation of adult behavior is not the only reason children might engage in biased behavior. They are perfectly capable of developing their own prejudices without any help from us. They do need our help to grow beyond them.
Most of our readers know that we have a child with multiple disabilities. For our new friends, let me quickly give a bit of background. She has cerebral palsy and is profoundly retarded. She does not speak, cannot run or climb, does love music and babbling her own little tunes, loves to eat, hates to do her therapies or work in any way, and is, like the rest of us, alternately charming and adorable or cranky and evil-tempered. You can read more about her here and here.
She is small for her age, and when she was much younger it was not immediately apparent that she was severely disabled. She didn’t have the distinguishing marks of a Down Syndrome child, for instance. There are other subtle cues, though, and when she wearing size 4T clothes at age 7, the fact that she sucked her thumb didn’t immediately indicate the discrepancy between her mental and her physical age as it does now that she’s wearing smaller women’s sizes. Even when she was smaller, after a few minutes with her it would become obvious something wasn’t right, but it wasn’t always clear to strangers what was wrong- putting interchanges with her sometimes off kilter and making people feel just a little uncomfortable. Adults would look at me for guidance. Children, depending on their ages, would either ignore it and talk to her anyway, or angrily push her away.
Before we had the Cherub it was my belief, because it was one of the cultural assumptions I’d grown up with, that all prejudice is taught. To say I ‘believed’ this isn’t right, because it was so ingrained that it couldn’t even be called a belief. That would be like saying I ‘believed’ that rain was wet. I simply understood it as one of the underlying laws of the Universe. I understood that if I saw a child exhibit prejudice, fear, or dislike towards a disabled person or a person of color that the child had learned that somehow at home.
Then we adopted the Cherub and entered an entirely new world, the world of life with a different child. I noticed something strange, something as unsettling to my understanding of the universe as if I walked in the rain and found that it dried me off instead of soaking me to the skin.
What I noticed is that an astonishing number of children didn’t like my little girl. They were afraid of her, and uncomfortable around her. At first I put this down to some hidden bigotries within the home, and I was dismayed to discover this about my friends. Sometimes their poor parents put it down to some hidden bigotries within their own hearts, and they were dismayed.
As time went on, I noticed something that broadened my understanding (and revised my judgment). Some of these children had been happily playing with the Cherub since babyhood. She loves babies, and smiles and coos at them. She likes to hand them toys (and hug them too hard, so we must be careful). The babies love her back. But at some point, as the babies grow into toddlers and preschoolers, nearly every one of them we have ever known will reach a point where they are afraid of her. I can only guess at why from my own personal observations, and that’s not conclusive, but I think I’m right. Here’s what I think happens- at some point the babies grow up enough to have a certain understanding of how the world works and how people act and what they are supposed to do, what is familiar and what is not- and at about that stage in their development they notice that the Cherub does not act like everybody else, she does not respond to them like everybody else, they do not know why, but she’s very different- and it makes them uncomfortable, nervous, frightened, or just strongly unsettled. They don’t like this, so they avoid the Cherub and want her to leave them alone. This happened, btw, even with the Cherub’s own baby brother and sister, who were born years after the Cherub joined the family and had never known of life without the Cherub in it. They both reached a stage of development where they just reacted badly to the Cherub (around two years of age for them, though I’ve seen it at 3 or 4 in some of our friends’ children). Because they were our children and it was our home, we were able to educate them into a better understanding and behavior within a very short time. We made it clear that we were displeased by the behavior and that there was no reason for it. For those who do not live with a Cherub, it might take a month or so, barring other disabilities on the part of the child who is suddenly showing signs of discomfort and displeasure around people who are ‘different.’
Based on our experiences, I rethought my assumptions about prejudices being only learned behavior, and I thought of two common circumstances that ought to have told me that my assumptions were false. What happens when most children see a clown or a person dressed as Santa Clause for the first time? They react in fear and distress. They have not learned that clowns are funny, so they assume they are horrors and probably dangerous to boot. Nobody teaches our children to be afraid of clowns and department store Santas. That is not learned behavior. It comes naturally to them. Seeing clowns and department store Santa Clauses as funny, friendly, acceptable variations on the human form is the learned behavior.
Let’s return to the Cherub to see what this looks like from my point of view. Some parents see their children respond to the Cherub with fear and dislike, and they are dismayed and not happy with the situation. They think this is something that can and should be overcome. They worry about what they’ve done wrong (and I assure them that they haven’t created the problem, this isn’t learned, it comes naturally), and then they work to help their children learn proper behavior. They coax the child to be nice, they encourage the child to reach out to the Cherub in small ways, they do not permit pushing or rejection of the Cherub. They engage with the Cherub themselves, demonstrating that there is nothing to fear or dislike. They help their children feel comfortable again with the Cherub, and they help their children think of others rather than themselves.
But some parents (including some of our own relatives) do not do this. If we are standing in a circle to pray together and their child refuses to hold the Cherub’s hand and moves away so she doesn’t have to be near the Cherub, they shrug their shoulders and let it be. They think it is understandable that children will be uncomfortable around the retarded- and it is- but they mistake ‘understandable’ with ‘perfectly acceptable and there’s nothing we can or should do about it.’ If their child does not want to play with the Cherub and is ugly about it, they shrug that off, too, and allow the child pleasant alternatives. If we are all playing a game and we include the Cherub and their child objects, some parents will ‘help’ by offering to go play a private game away from the Cherub so that the child is not upset. These and similar behaviors will not help the child overcome his prejudices, but will reinforce them.
(Because this will probably come up in the comments, let me say I do not think the right way to handle a child who refuses to hold my daughter’s hand during a prayer is to force a child into the clearly distasteful-to-her task of holding my daughter’s hand right that second. It would be appropriate to have your child come and hold *your* hand and excuse yourself immediately after the prayer to go have a private talk with your child. It would be appropriate to go hold the Cherub’s hand yourself, making it clear to your child that you are not afraid or uncomfortable, and that you are a little concerned that she is. It would be appropriate to recognize that while this is not necessarily learned behavior your response as a parent will either reinforce the child’s prejudices or gently deconstruct them)
Unfortunately, there are a number of unpleasant and unacceptable behaviors that ‘come naturally’ to our children and to us. It is part of the human condition. Fortunately we are made in God’s image, and by His grace we have the ability and the mandate to grow in wisdom and maturity.
Based on our experiences, I think I can safely say that prejudice is not always a learned behavior, that children do come naturally by some dislikes and fears of the ‘other,’ whether that ‘other’ be a matter of disability, skin color, or unfamiliarity.
However, based on our experiences, I think it is also safe to say that some parents neglect their responsibility to help their children overcome these prejudices, perhaps because they themselves share them, they don’t want to take the time and trouble, or they mistakenly assume it will resolve itself over time. I no longer assume a child who doesn’t like our Cherub necessarily learned that dislike at home, but if the child is more than four or five years old, I generally presume that no steps have been taken at home to overcome that prejudice, and my experiences and observations thus far bear me out. it may well be that this cultural assumption we have that all prejudice in children is something they learned at home is itself part of the problem. A parent who accepts that point of view as certain fact may very well be absolutely certain that he has never taught that sort of prejudice in his home- and he will be right. But that disconnect may itself lead him to believe that there since he didn’t do anything to teach it, and his child rejects the different anyway, that there is nothing he can do to teach the child out of the behavior, either.