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Alycea Tinoyan for Fatherly

Where Do Our Biases Come From — And How Can Parents Teach Kids to Fight Them? 

As a parent, it’s crucial to address your own implicit biases and help your kids do the same. 

This story is part of From The Start: A Parent’s Guide to Talking About Racial Bias, a series created in partnership with Johnson’s®, Aveeno® Baby, and Desitin®. We’re here to help parents tackle the difficult task of talking to their kids about race. With a topic this big, it can be hard to even know where to start — so we’ve teamed up with experts who have real answers to parents’ questions.

Any parent doing the hard work to teach their kids about the dangers of racism must also look inward. All of us have internal biases that manifest both implicitly and explicitly and, if we’re not careful, we may be subtly influencing our children to have those biases too.

Bias, or showing “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another,” isn’t always hateful or even obvious. Instead, it usually involves feelings of avoidance and discomfort that affect your behavior. While explicit bias is generally a conscious choice, implicit bias is more subtle.

Social psychology research from 2014 shows that because implicit bias impacts people’s actions toward other individuals or groups, it can also be oppressive. That’s why, as a parent, it’s crucial to address your own implicit biases and help your kids do the same. 

Is bias baked in? 

Bias may not be baked in, however we exhibit the signals and markers of it very early. Biases develop because of the very necessary human tendency to organize the world around us into categories: good and bad, right and wrong, and so on. This organizing principal may also extend to our  preference for people who are like us — 2008 research on babies’ preferences for own-race faces found that even three-month-old infants show favoritism toward people who look like them, and that preschoolers prefer peers in their own “in-group.” 

Evolutionary psychology holds one explanation for why we’re so quick to judge.

Thousands of years ago, an “in-group” preference could have promoted survival: For example, quickly surveying and stereotyping likely prompted our tribal ancestors to defend themselves against an invading, outsider group. So, while the threat of marauding invaders and saber tooth tigers may have diminished  somewhat,  our brains have been a bit  slower  in accepting the good fortune and relative safety of life in the 21st century.

As a result it takes work to understand someone who is different than you, and to alter your knee-jerk response to that difference.   Understanding that implicit bias is a real thing, and that it exists in you at this very moment  is the first step to overcoming it.

Identifying our own biases

As common as it is for us to show favoritism toward people who are like us  — and to discriminate against those  who aren’t — it’s not always easy to identify your biases, how they play out in your life, and, most importantly, how they can  harm other people. 

Bias is slippery, as it comes in many forms and guises and can even manifest unconsciously. The majority of implicit bias is unconscious. Which means you’re not making an active choice to be prejudiced. Your biases might even be incompatible with your values. For example, you might care a lot about diversity and inclusion, and make a big effort to teach your kids about them. But you can still hold an unconscious bias that a certain group is more intelligent or harder-working than another. Factors like someone’s gender identity, physical ability, age, appearance, or sexual orientation can also be subject to bias driven prejudice.

Thankfully, there is  also evidence that, like many harmful beliefs, bias is malleable — which means you can think and behave differently, and to teach your kids to do the same. The key lies in understanding what implicit biases you may have, acknowledging those biases, and creating different behaviors to evict old ones from your brain. 

How to teach kids about bias — and model good behavior for children 

Rashelle Chase, a content architect for KinderCare’s education team and a member of the organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion caucus, tells us it’s helpful to promote diversity in your social circles so kids can develop relationships with people different from themselves, beginning at an early age. Families must  also be intentional about choosing books, toys, and media that represent diverse types of people as main characters.  The idea is to squash “out-group” thinking as early as possible.

“As human beings, we develop fear and anxiety around the things we don’t know or understand, and this happens with young children around racial and other physical differences by the age of two,” says Chase. “Ensuring our children have opportunities to experience diversity and inclusion first-hand contributes to their comfort and familiarity with people from other backgrounds.”

It’s  important to model open and respectful conversations around differences, which can help kids understand that there are many ways to live — from family structures and types of housing to religious beliefs and the way we speak — and that when someone is different than us, they aren’t better or worse. “They’re just different, and that’s a good thing,” Chase says.

As much as you teach your kids about bias, remember, your actions speak louder than your words. Child psychologist Donna Housman, founder of the Housman Institute, says kids under the age of five learn primarily through observation and imitation. So, awareness of your own beliefs is key. Once you pinpoint your biases, you can work to overcome them in your everyday life — and your kids will follow suit.

Non-verbal communication like body language and facial expressions play a big role, too, whether you’re talking about bias or working on it in front of your kids. In fact, a 2017 study from the University of Washington found that preschool-age children can pick up on biases from a parent’s gestures, body language, and expressions. 

“As a parent or caregiver, it is important to be mindful that our attitudes, emotions and behaviors impact how a child will learn and develop — they hear our words and tone, watch our actions and pick up on our feelings,” Housman says.

For example, according to Chase, even infants pick up non-verbal cues from their parents. So if discomfort with a particular race, gender or other identity results in a parent tensing their body, giving wide berth on the sidewalk, or some other physical response, their children will absorb and internalize these responses. However, recognizing this behavior and catching yourself before it happens again, will help rid the behavior and prevent your children from implicitly doing the same. 

No matter where you are in the process, don’t beat yourself up. Overcoming bias, and teaching your kids to be inclusive, is a journey, and awareness is the first step. 

“Implicit biases are something we all carry, and it doesn’t make us bad people,” Chase says. “It does mean, though, that we must be intentional about recognizing our biases and checking ourselves before acting on them.”


For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, click here.