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From Marjorie Rhodes, Professor of Psychology at New York University: How can modern parents raise the next generation to be free from corrosive gender and racial stereotypes? By the time children start elementary school, gender and race shape their lives in many ways that parents might want to prevent. And by just age three, white children in the United States implicitly endorse stereotypes that African-American faces are angrier than white faces. These stereotypes go deeper than children’s beliefs — they also can shape a child’s behavior. By age 6, girls are less likely than boys to choose activities that seem to require them to be really smart, which could contribute to the development of long-term gender differences in science and math achievement.

Why do stereotypes develop in such young children? As a professor of early cognitive and social development, I have seen my research reveal how surprisingly subtle features of language contribute to a child’s tendency to view the world through the lens of social stereotypes. Many parents try to prevent the development of stereotypes in children by avoiding saying things like, “boys are good at math,” or “girls cannot be leaders.” Instead, parents might take care to say things that are positive, like “girls can be anything they want.” But our research has found that, to the developing mind, even these positive statements can have negative consequences.

For young children, how we speak is often more important than what we say. Generalizations, even if they say only things that are positive or neutral, such as “Girls can be anything they want,” “Hispanics live in the Bronx” or “Muslims eat different foods,” communicate that we can tell what someone is like just by knowing gender, ethnicity or religion. Research found that hearing generalizations led children as young as 2 years old to assume that groups indicate important differences between individual people. This means that generalizations are problematic even if children do not understand them. If a young child overhears, “Muslims are terrorists,” the child might not know what it means to be a Muslim or a terrorist. But the child can still learn something problematic — that Muslims, whoever they are, are a distinct kind of person, and it is possible to make assumptions about what someone is like just by knowing if they are Muslim or not.

Language that uses specifics — instead of making general claims — avoids these problems. Sentences like, “Chita’s family is Hispanic and lives in the Bronx,” “The Amine’s, who are Muslim, eat different foods,” “Julia is great at math,” “You can be anything you want,” all avoid making general claims about groups. Using specific language also can teach children to challenge their own and others’ generalizations. This approach works for more sensitive generalizations — things a child might say, like “Big boys are mean,” or “Muslims wear funny clothes.” Sometimes children speak this way because they are testing out whether drawing a generalization is sensible. By bringing them back to the specific incident, we communicate to them that it is not. How much can this small change in language really matter? Parents, teachers and other caring adults cannot control everything that children hear, and exposure to explicitly racist, sexist or xenophobic ideas also can influence a child’s view of societal norms and values. Children develop their sense of the world through conversations with important adults in their lives. As parents and caregivers, we can use our language carefully to help children learn to view themselves and others as individuals, free to choose their own paths.