Children are easily impressionable, and the opinions of others can impact the way they see the world and the people around them.

While young children are the most impressionable, teenagers and young adults can still be influenced to behave in a certain way or to hold particular beliefs.

The question of whether or not you can prevent children from adopting beliefs like racist and sexist attitudes from their parents is one that is frequently asked, and debated.

Learning from Parents

Children are easily affected by the things they experience at home and at school but how much of their behaviour is influenced by their environment?

A wide-ranging meta study conducted by the Queensland Brain Institute in collaboration with researchers at VU University of Amsterdam showed that:

….in psychiatric, ophthalmological and skeletal traits, genetic factors were a larger influence than environmental factors. But for social values and attitudes it was the other way around.

A child who is raised in a home where adults actively display racism is more likely to express a similar attitude themselves as they grow older. To them, it is seen as an acceptable thing to do, and the behaviour is condoned by their parents.

Similarly, those who are raised in a household where they experience sexist behaviour on a regular basis, are more likely to display the same behaviour when they are older and have entered relationships. It can alter their view of the opposite sex, and lead to unhealthy relationships in which they mistreat the opposite gender.

Many psychologists agree that your environment as a child can have a significant impact on your view of the world as you grow up.

Learning from peers

Interestingly, top psychologist Judith Rich Harris, has said that children are more likely to adopt the behaviours of their friends than they are their parents. Her research shows that a child who is raised in a good home is just as likely to become a troublemaker as one who was raised in a poor environment – it all depends on the kind of children they choose to mix with.

She feels that outside influences such as pop culture, television, and friends, have a much greater impact on a child’s behaviour than anything else – even genetics. Harris states that children need to ‘get along in the culture in which they are reared’ as opposed to that of their parents.

The levels of influence that children have on each other could also explain why they pick up the speech patterns and accents of their friends so quickly.

Helping children to unlearn racist and sexist attitudes

So what can you do in your school to help children understand why the negative social attitudes they have learned from parents are not acceptable?

Try and promote a sense of tolerance and equality in the classroom. It can be difficult to battle extreme points of view with regards to gender and race, but with gentle reinforcement, you may be able to widen their viewpoint. It is important not to treat a pupil with these views too harshly, as this can reinforce their feelings of hatred or dislike.

Instead, approach the subject gently and continue to promote the positives regularly. It is possible to help the children that you teach to see things a little differently, you just have to go about it in a calm and gentle manner.

Of course, not every child can be changed, and this is a sad reality that may teachers need to accept. However, the important thing is that you tried to help them see the bigger picture.

One way to help children unlearn racist and sexist attitudes is by ensuring that the literature they have access to is inclusive rather than divisive. Teachingforchange.org has an excellent guide to selecting unbiased books for school-age children that focuses on characters, story lines, relationships, lifestyles, social identities, and even copyright/publishing dates.

Lead by example and create an environment that is as inclusive as possible:

  • use multi-racial resources with no visible gender or ability discrimination.
  • use inclusive, non-gender-specific phrasing when talking to your students.
  • answer any and all questions about race and gender honestly and openly.
  • do not ignore differences in race, religion, gender, ability, etc.
  • deal with any discriminatory behaviour in an open but firm manner.
  • create an emotionally literate environment where children can be open and explain how they are adversely affected by discrimination.
  • don’t expect sudden changes in attitude – it can take a while to understand that discrimination is wrong and hurtful.

It can be hard to witness students that demonstrate racist and sexist attitudes in school or the classroom, and it is easy for them to pick up and adopt the behaviour that their parents (as well as their friends) display.

While it is not a simple process, it is possible to help your students see a wider point of view and prevent them from adopting the behaviours and viewpoints of their parents. But it is not an easy task, and you are not going to positively impact every child who has picked up these views. Even if you fail, the important thing is you tried.