When cable network A&E announced that they were airing a documentary featuring members of the Klu Klux Klan passing down racist traditions to their children (aptly titled Generation KKK) actors, journalists and respectful members of society were justifiably outraged. Trailers for the now-scrapped production featured Chris Buckley, a Georgia native, teaching his five year old son how to perform white power salutes as well as other children playing dress up in the KKK ceremonial robes.
How could parents be teaching their children such blatant racism? Could children learn racism from watching such programming? Many American households were justifiably concerned about the effects of such programming. Well it turns out that we may be teaching our children in our everyday interactions with other people.
Researchers from the University of Washington have recently published findings that suggest that pre-school aged children can learn bias and prejudice through observing non-verbal cues from adults. Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher at the university, invited 67 children aged four and five years old to take part in the first phase of the study. The children were shown videos in which two different female actors displayed different nonverbal cues when acting with another woman while performing simple activities, such as sharing a toy.
One of the actors displayed visibly positive nonverbal cues such as smiling, leaning inwards, and having a warm tone of voice when sharing the toy with the other woman while the other actor displayed negative nonverbal cues in the forms of scowling, leaning away, and having a cold tone of voice when sharing their toy with the woman. Researchers then asked the children themselves after viewing the video whom they would rather share the toy with: the woman who received the toy from the actor who displayed positive behavioral cues or the woman who received the toy from the actor who displayed negative behavioral cues.
Results of the research suggest that children respond more favorably to people who are the recipient of positive nonverbal signals as 67% of the children answered that they would rather share the toy with the woman who interacted with the positive actor.
“This research shows that kids are learning bias from the non-verbal signals that they’re exposed to, and that this could be a mechanism for the creation of racial bias and other biases that we have in our society,” expressed Skinner who works in the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”
In order to determine whether this bias can lead to more widespread group bias and prejudice, Skinner expanded the study to include a second phase of research. 81 different children aged four and five were recruited to participate in the study that included the same video from the first study. This time, however, the children were introduced to “best friends” of the women who were recipients of the toys as well as the positive and negative nonverbal cues of the actors. These “friends” were described as belonging to the same group as the toy recipients and wore shirts of matching color to the recipients to signify their similarities. The children were again asked which best friend they would rather share the toy with.
Similar to the first study, the results show that children favored the friend of the recipient of positive nonverbal signals over the friend of the recipient of negative nonverbal signals. When taken into account with the results of the first phase of the study, researchers are confident in their implication that children can easily learn bias through nonverbal cues and that this bias can extend to entire groups of people.
Because young children are often not exposed to members of differing races, gender identities, and sexual orientations before attending school they often rely on their parents or other adults to learn how to interact with different groups. Children can easily pick up on nonverbal cues used by adults, no matter how brief, as they are constantly learning about their environments, leading to the development of generalized biases.
“It is quite telling that brief exposure to biased nonverbal signals was able to create a bias among children in the lab,” Skinner articulated. “Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”
The results of the study underscores the importance of adults being aware of their interactions with others, especially members of differing social groups, in the presence of their children. It is important for everyone to realize that one does not have to be an outright racist, misogynist, or homophobe in order to pass down bias to children and other impressionable members of society. If we can see little deviations in our own behaviors when interacting with others, even down to how much we smile, our body language, and our tone of speech, and learn to correct them, we will be able to eliminate bias that can be interpreted and copied by children.
This cannot be stressed enough going forward in modern America. Our recent election of a known bigot as well as the outpour of racism, misogyny and outright hatred in the past couple of months is more than enough to relay bias to children who may watch such people on television or be unlucky enough to see such bias in person. In order to make American great again for our children we have to teach them that such bias is wrong, and this starts with eliminating bias in our own behaviors whether they are intended or not. So what do you say? Can we all just get along?