“How do you think you might respond if this happened at school?” I asked my youngest. We were reading the part of the book Jacob’s New Dress where Jacob’s classmates tease him about what he wears to school. To be honest, I was kind of excited to hear my child’s response. I imagined him to be a proud upstander fighting for justice in his kindergarten class. After all, he consistently points out gender and racial stereotypes in movies or in conversations at home. This little kid, my thinking went, was clearly a comfortable little advocate.
But his answer did not match the response I had glibly imagined. “I don’t know…” he finally responded quietly. He was clearly uneasy and eager to move on to the next page.
“It’s okay to feel a little unsure,” I responded, sheepishly realizing that spotting and stopping bias in the comfort and safety of our home must be quite different from navigating the precarious and stormy waters of peer relationships at school. Truth be told, most grown-ups aren’t equipped to do the messy, exhausting, and courageous work of standing up for self and others when there is no script and an uncertain outcome.
“That’s why we all need to practice,” I reassured him as we turned the page. I also reminded myself that he deserved some more committed coaching. As I put his beloved book back on the shelf, I realized once again that disrupting bias can’t start and stop with stories and conversations. Our kids need to practice putting these ideas into anti-bias actions.
“Whatever the brain does a lot of is what the brain gets good at.”
Neuroscientists have a way of explaining the impact of experience on the growth and development of the brain: “The neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more often we spark a neural connection, the stronger it becomes. At Spark & Stitch we talk about this as, “Whatever the brain does a lot of is what it gets good at.” We build our brain power with practice.
For most parents and kids this principle of brain science makes a lot of sense when it comes to things like math facts, sports, or learning to read. Most of us can compare the discomfort and awkwardness we feel when we are trying something new with the comfort and confidence that emerges with practice, skill building, and repetition.
When it comes to navigating social situations or building social emotional skills, however, we often forget that the same amount of practice is required. This is true when it comes to internal skills like empathy, self-awareness, and impulse control. It’s also the case when it comes to social skills like communication, problem solving – and disrupting racism, sexism, and other -isms.
Engaging Our Kids As Active Learners
It’s not that reading stories and having conversations isn’t important. Indeed, storytelling is one of the primary ways that we communicate our values and help kids make sense of their identities and experiences. But brain science reminds us that playing, practicing, and rehearsing builds neural connections and confidence.
Just compare the difference between reading Jacob’s New Dress while safely nestled next to me and being an advocate in the middle of the loud, chaotic playground. It’s clear that the latter would require a much more rich and sophisticated set of social skills. Kids need practice building the emotional regulation, capacity and stamina to work through discomfort and confront bias when they see it.
Research backs this up. Dr. Rebecca Bigler has dedicated her career to understanding how to help children disrupt bias once it has taken root. Her research demonstrates that it is decidedly not enough just to show children expansive gender roles and diverse characters in books and shows and hope they absorb the lessons. Instead, we need to engage our kids as active learners.
In one study, Dr. Bigler found that with children in early elementary school, reading stories about interrupting sexism was not as effective as actively teaching the same interventions. She actively engaged one group of children in spotting six different ways sexism shows up (things like “girls can’t play this game!”) and then rehearsed and role-played six different memorable responses (things like “You can’t say girls can’t play!”). When it came to putting their learning into action, this group of kids was far more likely to actually confront sexist dynamics on the playground than the children who were just read to. It is important to note that in the absence of active skill building, kids rarely challenged the sexist remarks of their peers.
Getting Started– Let’s Tell Stories AND Build Skills
- Pause and relate. While reading books, pause and ask your child to relate the story to their own context and experiences. Ask questions like, “Have you ever seen anything like this happen to others at your school? To you?” and, “How did it feel?” and, “How did you or others respond?”
- Practice spotting bias and stereotypes. “In this story, this child feels left out because the other kids are saying that he can’t wear a dress to school.” What stereotypes are at play here? How else do kids feel left out or targeted? What does it feel like to belong? Brainstorm specific scenarios in which belonging or exclusion might play out based on stereotypes.
- Practice stopping bias. “What can we do if we see this?” “What could we say or do to protect ourselves and others from this hurtful stereotype?” Remind kids that there isn’t one strategy that always works for every identity in every scenario.
- Process. We know that it takes a lot of practice to disrupt bias in the moment. It can also be exhausting or unsafe for kids who are the target of bias to constantly spot and stop these dynamics. Remind your kids that they can always process what happened with you for listening, support, and brainstorming next steps. Finally, acknowledge and open the door for your child to talk to you about times when they were disrespectful and need to practice apologizing and making amends as well.
- Rehearse and role play. With young children, we can even adopt roles and practice together. Use puppets, characters, and acting to work through ways to respond.
Be brave: Learn together
At home, these lessons might sound a little different at different ages and don’t happen in one long, formal rehearsal. They don’t happen in a lecture or via drills. They will look different in each of our households depending upon our culture and our identities. But our kids do rely on us to help them build a toolkit for action that matches their growing awareness of identity, difference, and bias. They do rely on us to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what the playground, classroom, or hallway might feel like and to make plans for how to intervene in ways that work for them.
If we are honest, it’s possible that our own responses sometimes mirror the honest and nervous answer of my youngest child. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to do either. Let’s slowly but surely move beyond the safety of pages of books or shows where the script is already written and use our voices to disrupt bias in the loud and very real world.
This is a time for us grown-ups to be brave as well. And to coach ourselves with the same reassurance I offered my kid: “That’s why we all need to practice.” Let’s get started. Because whatever the brain does a lot of, is what the brain gets good at.
Need more guidance?
Here are some additional resources to help you in this work:
- Learning for Justice – Gender Doesn’t Limit You! A Research-Based Anti-Bullying Program for the Early Years.
- Learning for Justice – Speak Up Guide: Responding to Everyday Prejudice, Bias, and Stereotypes
- Alteristic – Green Dot For Kids
- Dr. Michelle Borba – Bully Buster upstander skills.
- Dr. Howard Stevenson – RECAST resources on using racial literacy skills to help students process and respond to racialized incidents.
- American Psychological Association’s How Building a Positive Self-Image Helps Parents and Children of Color Process Racial Stress
- Harvard’s Making Caring Common – Five Tips For Reducing Gender Bias