Stereotypes provide a quick and easy way to categorize others. If we make assumptions about people based on a group we think they belong to, rather than considering them as an individual, it saves processing time. Stereotypes can also make us feel superior to others, with powerful implications for the way people treat one another. While there are all sorts of stereotypes, people commonly associate the term with negative ideas about race and gender.

If we want to raise children to respect each other as individuals rather than resorting to lazy negative stereotypes about others, then it helps to understand how stereotypes develop. Children learn stereotypes from parents, peers, and media. Everyday items like toys, books, and clothes can reinforce gender stereotypical messages such as  ‘girls like pink’, or ‘boys are naughty’. A recent study has found that the key to preventing the development of stereotypes in children lies not so much in what we say about others, but in the way that we say it.

Never generalize

The research shows that when children as young as two years old hear generalizations about social groups it leads them to assume that belonging to a group gives people set characteristics that mark them out as different from others.

Children were given information about an invented category of people called  “Zarpies”. The key to how children began to think about Zarpies depended on whether they were spoken about in general or specific ways. When given specific information, for example, “this Zarpie is scared of ladybugs”, they continued to see the Zarpies as individual people, even though the Zarpies were marked out by labels and clothes. When given the same information in a generalised way, eg; “Zarpies are scared of ladybugs” however, they started to think of Zarpies as very different from everyone else.

The more generic statements the children heard, the more likely they were to think that traits that applied to one Zarpie would be shared with other Zarpies. They also began to view stereotypes as innate and to believe that a Zarpie raised by non-Zarpies would still have ‘typical’ Zarpie traits.

Related research found that hearing generalizations, even positive ones, makes children less likely to share with members outside their own social group.

The findings show that generic language is a big influence on the development of stereotypical beliefs about others. Even just hearing a social category described in generic terms e.g., ‘Sikhs wear turbans’, can lead to the assumption that it’s okay to generalize about that social category and that that social category is likely to have other traits in common.  

Use Specifics

Language that avoids generalization avoids these problems. Specific sentences such as  “This Sikh wears a turban,” “This girl loves cats,” or “These boys love books” avoid making general claims about groups.

Psychologist Marjorie Rhodes suggests an easy way to respond to generalized statements from children. Ask them who they are thinking of. This helps to guide children to think in terms of individuals instead of groups, which research suggests, reduces stereotyping.

When children make generalized statements, it can seem natural to respond with another, perhaps opposing, generalized statement. For instance, you might reply to the general claim, “girls are best at reading,” with, “boys are great at reading too,” but this example still categorises boys as a specific group about whom it is okay to generalize. A response that talks about an individual would be better e.g “Isaac loves to read.”

Hearing generalizations, even positive or neutral generalizations, contributes to children viewing the world in a stereotypical way. If we don’t want our children to grow up believing that race, gender, religion or other categories determine what a person can do, we need to understand that the way we use language matters.