Did you know that young children begin to notice and point out the differences they see in people as early as six months? This ability to put things into categories like "safe to eat" and "hungry animal to run away from" has helped humans survive over hundreds of thousands of years. But if we aren't paying attention, it can also lead to making oversimplified generalizations about people, and those stereotypes can be harmful.
Because even babies are starting to sort people into categories, it's never too early to start talking with children about the stereotyping they will observe in the world around them, and help them question and push back against it. Here are some ideas for talking about stereotypes in a very kid-friendly way:
- Ask your child to draw or describe someone from a specific category, such as "girl" or "boy". Chances are you'll hear things like, "girls have long hair" or "boys are messy" which gives you an opportunity to talk about people you know who may not fit those stereotypes. For example in my family, mom is a messy woman with short hair!
- Children's books can be a great way to start conversations, so as a family, do a "diversity audit" on books in your own home! Look for stereotypes and bias in your own books, or books you have checked out from the library, using some of these criteria. Be sure to talk about it as you go. You can use words like “fair/unfair” when talking about stereotypes you find in your books. For instance, “Wow, this picture book only included white male inventors. That’s unfair. Black women invented lots of things, too. Let’s read about some African American women inventors.” I guarantee you will learn a lot from the experience!
- Look for books specifically written to talk with young children about stereotypes and how to celebrate differences: Here is a book list to help get those conversations started.
These activities can be done any time of year. Here in the U.S, November is a time when we celebrate Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving, which gives extra opportunities for non-Native families to talk about stereotypes specific to Native Americans and Indigenous people. For example, ask your child to draw a Native American dwelling or home. Talk about how most Native and Indigenous families live in houses and apartments. They are modern, vital people in our society, not just historical figures.
For some additional resources, I recommend this article about teaching preschool and kindergartners about Native and Indigenous peoples. You can also find info in this A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving to help you tell the factual story of the holiday. We also have more book lists in this post Celebrating Native American Heritage month!
Like language, stereotyping is learned over time. It is never too early - or too late - to talk with children about kindness and fairness and diversity, and to demonstrate the many ways we can treat all people with respect and dignity.