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Babies are Hardwired to Stereotype and They’re Learning It from You

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Feb 14, 2017

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“Prejudice is the child of ignorance,” wrote the British humanist William Hazlitt. But children are not ignorant of prejudice. A new study suggests that children as young as 2 can pick up stereotypes from abstract language, suggesting the origins of prejudice in children start early.

If you’re priding yourself on not stereotyping, stop right there. The human brain is the world’s most powerful computer, and computers work by processing and classifying data into categories. We are, in fact, hardwired to classify – that is, stereotype; it allows us to process and respond to information quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, that response typically takes the form of bias and prejudice.

Even when we think we are free from it, we are not. Implicit bias is a concept first proposed in 1995 by psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. It refers to learned stereotypes so deeply and/or early ingrained as to govern our attitudes and actions beyond our conscious or rational awareness. (The psychologists later developed a test for implicit racial bias and prejudice; while that test has since come under fire, the concept itself is generally accepted as a bedrock of human cognition.)

Which is to say while you might not be aware of your own biases, you could still be communicating them to your children. But how? What, exactly, are the origins of prejudice in children?

Where do stereotypes come from?

Published last month in the journal Child Development, the latest study in a growing body of research into the origins of prejudice and bias found that simple linguistic cues lead 31-month-olds to form new social categories.

Babies do this naturally, upon exposure. But using generic, abstract language (e.g., per the study, saying “Girls wear pink,” rather than “This girl wears pink”), the authors write, can prompt this kind of categorization even when children have not experienced the subject in question first-hand.

Other research has found that children pick up and model nonverbal signifiers of bias (smiles or frowns) as preschoolers. It’s no wonder, then, that by age 5, stereotypes are deeply embedded. Another recent study, published in the journal Science, found that by age 5 to 6, girls are less likely to associate “brilliance” with their gender, even though they’re often getting the best grades.

It’s not clear precisely where this stereotype come from; researchers posit that teachers’ implicit bias may lead them to call on boys more often or the history books celebrating overwhelmingly male accomplishments may encourage dissociation – but implications are lifelong, if only because kids are quick to extend any stereotype to others in the same social category.

“This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate,” wrote the authors of the study on gendered perceptions of brilliance.

But that’s what stereotypes do – they limit, classify, corral, define. So how can parents keep a natural neurological instinct from becoming a damaging social practice?

A lot of it boils down to being conscious of implicit bias in ourselves – which is perhaps an oxymoronic effort, but one worth engaging in nonetheless – and challenging it in our children.

Watching our language and expressions seems to be key, per the research above. Experts also suggest exposure to individuals or even photographs of individuals, which allows people to determine merit based on individual qualities rather than a groups’; pointing out examples of stereotype-breakers – a girl good at maths; a boy who likes to sew; and asking your child (and yourself) to think from the perspective of a stereotyped group member.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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