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Talking to Children About Bias

Parents should take the opportunity to instill their values by discussing the topic of bias with their children.

Bias is everywhere — and it’s time to move beyond it, says psychologist, former business executive and YPO spouse Kelly Donohoe. As parents, we must address this sensitive topic with our children, she says.

In a recent global conference call hosted by YPO’s Parenting Network that focused on having the (potentially) difficult discussion, Donohoe discussed how our brains have been wired for bias and how to counter its presence.

“Bias comes from the oldest part of our brains,” she explains. “It helps us rapidly sort through information — friend or foe? — and make appropriate decisions. We would not have survived without it.”

Here are some techniques Donohoe recommends to get the most out of the conversation about bias:

Build the frame

Before sitting down with your children, build the frame — the safe environment. The frame consists of trust, openness, genuineness, boundaries and respect.

Trust is especially important for a discussion of this nature; it lets your children know you will not judge them for speaking frankly. Openness is awareness of your own feelings, thoughts and reactions, as well as those of your child. Genuineness is being yourself, interacting with your children the same way you always do (tone of voice, body language, sense of humor). A lack of genuineness will be immediately sensed by your children, and they are likely to react by not being genuine themselves. Boundaries provide assurance that anger or hurt feelings will be left behind when the conversation is concluded, or — if those issues need further discussion — time will be set aside for that purpose. Respect goes both ways, from parent to child and child to parent.

Know what is normal

When parents hold this sort of discussion with their children, they often wonder if the behaviors demonstrated by their children during the conversation are “normal.” Given that children are unlikely to want to talk to parents about bias or other sensitive topics, they may display certain responses that are unsettling, but perfectly normal, such as saying outrageous things (to test the boundaries), remaining silent, or offering only superficial or brief comments.

One tactic to alleviate discomfort is to “give it a voice” by saying out loud what everyone is feeling, such as, “It feels strange to be discussing this, doesn’t it?” Talking about your own feelings — “I feel a little nervous talking about this” — can be helpful in sparking conversation as well.

Use trust-building behaviors

Some of the behaviors already mentioned — genuineness, self-disclosure and respect — contribute to building a trusted environment. Another is paying attention to nonverbal cues. Avoid eye-rolling, crossing your legs and arms, and looking or facing away. Turn your phone off and put it away.

Careful confrontation is another important behavior. If your child says something you consider inappropriate, do not ignore it. However, instead of responding aggressively, say, “I heard what you said, and here’s how it made me feel. I am wondering why you made that statement?” Allow the child time to explain, then reiterate, “Those are not the kinds of values our family believes in.”

Careful confrontation can apply to people other than your children as well. If a friend or family member makes an inappropriate remark in front of your children, model desired behavior by responding with, “Please do not make comments like that.” Then, later, discuss the incident with your children.

Make it natural

Holding a special meeting to discuss bias may not be comfortable for all families. In those cases, look for other ways such a discussion can come up naturally in the course of experiencing something that exposes the child to different cultures, beliefs or behaviors. Movies, television shows, books, museums and travel offer ample opportunities to initiate a natural conversation about differences and similarities.

Another approach is to initiate a discussion with your spouse or partner in front of your children. This allows you to model your beliefs and makes it easy for your children to join the discussion, if they wish.