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Political Correctness Can Both Help and Hurt Children

Political correctness may help minority children feel more confident in the classroom, and it may stifle intellectual growth, too. So the best approach is one of nuance.

Americans have now been arguing about political correctness for decades. That argument is being won by different sides in different places and with different results. As a result, we’re beginning to get a sense of how political correctness, the effort to contextualize facts within the experience of others, is affecting the lives and educations of children. So far, it seems that neither side has a monopoly on truth. Those that condemn PC culture ignore the good it often does for minority children and the ways it provides lessons in empathy. Those that strive to limit children’s exposure to upsetting material (say, Huckleberry Finn) ignore the virtue of confronting ugliness honestly.

The issue of whether or not political correctness is good for children is coming to a head as social justice movements grab headlines and educational institutions struggle to understand their own obligations to their students in a time of changing perceptions. Some have risen to the challenge, creating honest dialogues in order to inform students about their privileges and challenges. Others have chosen strategies that seem to promote a sort of ignorance.

“Raising your kids to be ‘color blind’ and claim they don’t notice differences seems problematic,” says Samuel Sommers, a psychologist at Tufts University who studies race and social perception. “There are school districts that have taken ‘color-blindness’ to the extreme, to the point that kids first learn in middle school that Martin Luther King was actually a black man.”

Sommers points out that this doesn’t work because it put language above human psychology and experience. “It’s raising them to be disingenuous,” he adds. 

Expert opinion has long been divided on the merits of political correctness. In 2015, the liberal commentator Jonathan Chait wrote an anti-PC manifesto which dismissed trigger warnings and cautioned that politically correct dialogue could devour academia from the inside out. Among a litany of disturbing anecdotes, he quoted a Harvard Crimson editorial that suggested objective research should take a backseat to social justice: “Why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom?’” a student had asked.

Chait made some trenchant points and received some fair criticism by those more comfortable with censorious practices. Many of the people who disagreed with him, pointed out that there’s little research to suggest that political correctness stifles expression. In fact, the contrary might be true. At least one study of politically correct office cultures found that groups of men and women who were exposed to PC norms generate more novel ideas, on average. “Our work challenges the widespread assumption that true creativity requires a kind of anarchy in which people are permitted to speak their minds, whatever the consequence,” the authors wrote.

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Part of the reason those that hate political correctness and those that strive to enforce it — whether or not they like the term — seem stuck at loggerheads is it’s unclear exactly what is being discussed. Far-right pundits frame the debate as being about brainwashing, which is not a very reasonable claim. However, the notion that educators must strive to make students comfortable even when facts don’t is also not without its extreme hazards.

“The real question is whether your child is getting indoctrinated or truly educated,” Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Not Trivial: How Studying The Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free told Fatherly. In her book, Thomas argues that political correctness is less about brainwashing children into not speaking their minds, and more about training good citizens. “A lot of what is called ‘political correctness’ nowadays means communicating in ways that are not offensive to women and people of color and people of minority religions. In other words, tact,” she says. “It is good to teach children to be not only rational and reasonable but kind. There’s no real downside to that.”

But Sommers is not convinced that PC culture is entirely benign, especially when it comes to problem-solving and social interactions. “Political correctness cuts both ways,” Sommers says. “We have found that, when people go out of their way to avoid acknowledging that they even notice race, they come off as distracted and make a worse impression.”

In a fascinating study published in 2013, Sommers demonstrated this point by asking white and black adults and children to play a modified game of “Guess Who.” Each participant was given a sheet of faces, half black and half white, and tasked with identifying the face their partners had in mind. The best strategy would be to ask about race and, indeed, 8-year-old children in the study unabashedly asked their partners if they were thinking of a black or white face. But white adults and children over the age of 10 largely skirted race, presumably to remain PC. “Older children usually become more efficient at problem-solving,” Sommers says. “Here, once white kids start acting like adults and avoid asking questions about race, they become less efficient.”

Worse, those who tiptoed around race in an attempt to make a good impression saw their efforts backfire—both their partners and outside observers rated them “disingenuous” and “distracted”. “Spending a whole interaction saying to yourself ‘don’t ask about race, don’t talk about race, don’t say anything about race’ is not conducive to a great interaction,” Sommers says.

And it’s important to understand that the conversation isn’t just about race. It is, to some extent, about information and how effectively it can be communicated if discourse is constrained. If we’re uncomfortable saying uncomfortable things, they go unsaid and new risks are created. Many of these have to do with health.

“There is an increasing problem with childhood obesity, to the extent that it is considered the norm and that adopting an anti-obesity stance is offensive,” Dr. Sally Satel, physician and author of How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine, told Fatherly. “They are at very high risk for diabetes and possibly renal failure as adults and, overall, a shortened life span.”

Parents, then, have few clear options. Raising your children to buck PC norms will make them less creative collaborators; raising them to not see race or disease will render them awkward, inefficient, and ultimately unhealthy. Experts, therefore, recommend a healthy balance.

Jasmin Terrany, a life coach, tells Fatherly that she’s raising her own children to be both tactful and curious. “To be politically correct doesn’t mean you can’t have your own perspectives or opinions,” she says. “It simply suggests that multiple perspectives and opinions can exist simultaneously.” Terrany seizes awkward questions as opportunities to teach healthy, respectful inquiry. “When my child asks why someone’s skin is a different color,” she says. “I highlight the ways in which people can be different: eyes, hair, height, shape. Skin is just another difference.”

Varda Meyers Epstein, a Kars4Kids blogger and mother of 12, takes a more hardline approach to balancing sensitivity and creativity. “There is no conflict,” she told Fatherly. “I prefer to teach my children not political correctness, but manners… Thinking people don’t take offense because someone unwittingly used a term deemed incorrect through an aggressive political trend.”

Sommers suspects there’s an appealling gray area between these two approaches. “We want to raise our children to be sensitive to differences,” he says. “But they should be able and willing to talk about differences between men and women, differences based on sexual orientation, and differences in race. Raising children to not want to discuss these issues is problematic.”

The trick, Sommers says, is to talk about everything—race, sex, gender identity—not pretend these differences don’t exist. The key is to, at the same time, train your children to celebrate diversity. If you’re white, and your white child points out a brown face in the supermarket, Sommers says the best tactic is to remain calm and point out that your child’s face is actually kind of pinkish and try to explain that there’s a spectrum. If parents can help kids understand that their families don’t represent normalcy, but do represent love and stability, they’ll have gone a long way towards helping. They will likely raise sensitive, but not over-sensitive children.

“Especially when you’re white,” Sommers adds. “Not being comfortable or capable of having a conversation about differences and racial bias does your children a great disservice.”