Recently I gave a talk about exclusionary behavior in children. Although at the surface the discussion was about secrets and bullying, underneath the theme was group categorization processes. Group categorization is a regular topic of this blog because it is facilitated by stereotypes. Group categorization is also a topic is at the root of exclusionary behavior in children and adults. I provided a handout for parents with tips on handling this issue with children.
At the heart of each tip are the valuable concepts of ingroups and outgroups. Ingroups are the groups we belong to. Outgroups are the groups we do not belong to. Social Identity Theory argues that people (children too of course) are motivated to view their ingroups as different from and better than outgroups because doing so allows them to inflate the worth of their ingroups and increase their own self-esteem.
Bullying is example of this idea. One or more children try to increase the value placed on their ingroup by ostracizing someone as an outgroup member. Peer pressure is also based on this idea. Kids try to pressure other kids to be part of their ingroup or risk being ostracized as an outgroup member. These and other types of exclusionary behavior amongst children is difficult for parents and guardians to know how to handle. The tips offered here are designed to help.
Parents and adults with the best intentions can also engage in exclusionary behavior without realizing it. Consider telling a little boy that ‘only little girls where dresses’ or that ‘pink is for girls’. Comments like these, often offered in casual and offhanded ways are not intended as exclusionary behavior but act in the same way. These comments clearly communicate to children what groups they are allowed to belong to and what behaviors they are allowed to have if they are to be accepted as an ingroup in the family and – on a larger scale – in society. For more on this type of exclusionary behavior watch my Huffington Post Live segment on this topic.
Regardless of who engages in exclusionary behavior and when it occurs, parents have reason to be concerned. Exclusionary behavior based on group categorization processes that threaten a child with outgrouping are at the heart of how molesters get away with their crimes, how bullies torment children, and why boys and girls follow rigid stereotypical gender roles even to their detriment. Boys can often end up more aggressive, less disciplined, more isolated, and unwilling to reveal any emotion other than anger. Girls can often end up with low confidence, more materialistic, overly dependent on social relationships, and unwilling to show any emotion other than happiness. I once asked a class of 30 students how many of them had been told to ‘smile more’ or been asked ‘why aren’t you smiling’. Every female in the class raised their hand including me and only one male.
How parents respond to exclusionary behavior teaches children whether they should accept it as normal or fight back against it. Many times, though, parents don’t know it is even going on or if they are engaging in it themselves. My tips help parents talk to their children about exclusionary behavior and help parents and children avoid engaging in it as well.
Tip 1: Avoid leading questions like “Did you have a lot of fun?” “Did that make you feel sad?”
Why? Leading questions teach children how to think, feel, and behave. Leading about negative emotions is just as bad as leading about positive emotions. This can teach children to feel bad about behavior that is socially acceptable or dismiss or hide behavior that is not socially acceptable. Leading questions tell children what to think, feel, and behave in order to be in your ingroup. If they want to belong in your ingroup, they will feel pressure to answer the question the way they think you want them to.
Tip 2: Don’t let your child off the hook when they give short, trite, or non-responsive answers like “fine,” “it was ok” or “nothing.”
Why? Children have learned the conversational norm not to give a really personal answer the first time someone asks a broad question such as “How was your day?” Just like with adults, pursuing information beyond the simple concise answers and preferably in a neutral way can lead to important conversations. Letting them off the hook tells them that to belong in your ingroup, they can’t get too deep or be too serious.
Tip 3: Don’t dismiss your child’s reluctant behavior or concerns as unimportant by saying things like s/he had a bad day or didn’t eat/sleep well.
Why? Adults have learned to compartmentalize (e.g., put something on the backburner to focus on something else) but children are learning to do this. By being dismissive adults teach children that these issues are unimportant and not worthy of talking about. At the extreme adults teach children that it is unreasonable or overreacting to be upset about this topic or that it is even their fault because the child had a ‘bad day,’ ‘didn’t sleep well,’ or ‘didn’t eat well.’ This shifts the focus to whether they want to be in your ingroup (e.g., ‘yes, I need a nap’) or outgroup (e.g., ‘I do not need a nap!’). Neither focuses on the child’s reasons for why s/he is reluctant or expressing concern.
Tip 4: Open the door to conversations by asking questions like has anyone been nice to them today/this week? Has anyone been not nice today/this week?
Why? Your child may not think to tell you about how s/he is being treated by others. Ingroup members assume familiarity with each other and sometimes forget to talk about things that don’t seem too important or that they take for granted as ‘normal.’
Tip 5: Gain your child’s confidence by using persuasive tactics in that moment. Don’t assume your child ‘should’ talk to you because you are their parent.
Why? In these moments children are engaging in their own internal dialogue. They already know you have credibility as their parent, but that’s not enough for the ‘pro’ side of the argument when the ‘con’ side has such a long list. Children want to tell you what is happening in their lives, but they need to be actively and logically persuaded that you are in their ingroup in that moment in order for them to tell you something they are uncomfortable about or have even been threatened about.
Tip 6: Engage in ethical and philosophical conversations with your child when they ask seemingly innocent but potentially deep questions like “when is it okay to keep a secret?” or “why are some people mean?”
Why? Children are already engaging in philosophical conversations in their own heads. You should have some input. Having a talk with children about “right and wrong” assumes there are always only two sides. Children know it is more complicated than that. Ethically grey areas are confusing for all of us, kids too. Help them understand how you deal with these so they know how to also. This reinforces that you are part of their ingroup because you are sharing- and essentially indoctrinating your child with- your ingroup’s ideas and values.
Tip 7: Define difficult concepts like ‘secret,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘friend’ in accessible ways and set easy to follow ground rules that respond to your child’s concerns.
Why? Some words seem simple but really have difficult meanings and are complicated. Taking the time to explain the finer details shows your child you care for the child as a fellow ingroup member and teaches the child to value your ingroup norms. It arms your child to respond to others as outgroup members who don’t know the ‘right’ way to behave according the the norms of your child’s ingroup. It arms them to have pride in knowing how to respond to these complicated issues in a way that is consistent with their family ingroup against another child who may not be as savvy about these topics.
For example, during a long and difficult attempt to find out a ‘secret’ from my daughter I decided to define some terms she seemed to have some confusion about. The definitions might not work for every family but can be adjusted to accommodate many different family types.
1) Something that will that person else happy when they find out; 2) something will definitely eventually be told to that person; 3) something that will be revealed in a short period of time.
1) Something important; 2) Something that you keep between two or more people only; 3) Something that must be told to either mommy or daddy, but not necessarily both, as soon as it exists even if the other person told you not to tell anyone; 4) Something mommy or daddy will never get mad at you for.
Tip 8: Talk about difficult topics in casual ways.
Why? Children feel stress when discussing difficult topics especially if they think you might be mad at them. This could cause them to be even more reluctant about talking. Keeping the conversation casual takes some of the pressure off of a child. Also when possible discuss difficult topics in an environment that is comfortable for your child like their room or favorite play area in order to heighten the sense of familiarity typical of ingroup members.
Tip 9: Take punishment off the table. Let your child know you won’t be mad at what they will tell you.
Why? Children learn to avoid punishment at by the time they are toddlers. As long as they have fear of punishment, there may not be much to persuade them. Fear of punishment heightens the sense that you are an authority figure and, therefore, an outgroup member. Minimize this threat and you can attempt to gain back ingroup status as family member rather than authority figure.
Tip 10: Be persuasive, unemotional, age appropriate, and logical building your argument slowly and gaining buy in at each smaller claim.
“You’ve done a lot of things and learned a lot and you are only five, right?”
“Mommy/daddy is older than you, right?”
“So mommy/daddy probably have also done a lot and learned a lot too, right?”
“Mommy/daddy have probably done and learned more things than you in all those extra years too, right?”
“So mommy/daddy know things you don’t know, right?”
“So mommy/daddy may knows things that can be dangerous that you don’t know about, right?”
“So it’s important for you to tell mommy/daddy secrets because it might involve something dangerous that you might not realize is dangerous, right?”
Why? Children are smarter than we give them credit for. Children are also often contrary for the fun of it! If we engage in a discussion about complicated topics with them, we can guide them to reach their own conclusions so that we are not simply telling them what to do, which children are often resistant to because it treats the child as a subordinate and an outgroup member.
Tip 11: With your child, brainstorm ways to respond to the situation. Explore the full range from easy to more difficult to do. Consider nonverbal options as well as verbal ones.
Why? Individually you or your child will come up with fewer options than you will by working together. Empower your child to come up with their own ideas as well. Let your child choose which they are more comfortable with to use to manage the situation. Don’t push your agenda but do hold your child accountable to explain why they are choosing one option over another. Provide feedback on her/his ideas in a non-judgmental way. Modeling this brainstorming process will help her see that as an ingroup member you share her problems. Moreover, it promotes problem-solving as a ingroup value and gives your child a sense that ‘we are in this together.’
Tip 12: Encourage your child to find a teacher, classmate, or other friend when they feel uncomfortable to help alleviate their feelings of being isolated and minimize the importance of that particular group categorization.
Why? Showing nonverbal or verbal alignment with someone demonstrates that the person is an ingroup member. Standing near or striking up an innocent and casual conversation with someone in authority (e.g., a popular kid in class, a big kid, a teacher) can have impact without the complications of ‘tattling’. Being alone heightens the feeling of being othered or outgrouped. Having a witness helps the child feel identified with an ingroup in the moment and can diffuse the attempt to outgroup.
Tip 13: Give your child a voice literally and figuratively by having them say something like, “Stop it I don’t like it” or “That’s not nice.” At random times have them practice saying it, shouting it, and shouting it in public places. This empowers your child to have a voice even in uncomfortable situations. Practice scenarios in which they would say this loudly. Encourage them to say this even when their friends do things they don’t like.
Why? It’s hard for anyone to fight social norms. But a child who feels othered is less likely to use their voice to gain back their power. Practicing with a child in a variety of scenarios shows them that as an ingroup member you will still love them and will be proud of them even if they violate social norms in this way. Children who practice these behaviors will learn that no matter what their own safety is more important than social norms. Think about the confidence this can give to a child to fight peer pressure throughout their lives. Children need to learn that fear of being outgrouped is not as important as their own safety and that their ingroup members want them safe!
Tip 14: Only in the worst case situations, raise the emotional stakes by raising your voice or crying in a controlled way about your frustration to find out a secret or get at the heart of the concern.
My child was convinced one day that her hunger pains occurred only if she ate food. So she refused to eat the entire day. By bedtime I was so frustrated I resorted to loudly crying and waling in front of her that I didn’t know what to do and that I was so worried and upset. As a result of this tactic, she wanted to help me feel better and decided eating would help the situation. She wasn’t trying to help herself. She was trying to help me. Either way, it worked!
Why? A child may be so confused or upset inside that they might not see the real root of the problem and also might not be aware of how the problem affects other people. Raising the emotional stakes diverts the child’s attention away from themselves and their problems and encourages them to problem-solve your problem as a parent. This manipulates your child’s sense of empathy to feel for you as an ingroup member rather as an authority figure and outgroup member trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do.
Tip 15: Help your child network by networking with parents and guardians at school social events and playdates. Expand your own networking comfort zone (e.g., race, class, gender, age, language). Seek out playdates across your child’s gender as well.
Why? Networking actively realigns group membership. It also gives the other children and their parents the opportunity to align with you as ingroup members in a new context in which they can get to know each other’s areas of similarity that would not otherwise be easily identifiable. Networking in this way demonstrates that you and your child are multi-dimensional individuals not one-dimensional stereotypes making it more difficult for these other children and their parents to view you as outgroup members. Tt also makes it less likely for you and your child to view them as outgroup members.
Tip 16: Avoid stereotyping and absolutes of ‘always’ and ‘never” such as saying, “dresses are for girls.” When your child points out that someone is behaving outside a cultural norm for a particular group membership highlight that not all people in a group think, act, or feel the same way. Use people who are familiar to your child as examples.
Why? Children are capable of understanding that life is more complicated than ‘always’ or ‘never’ but their first inclination is this type of simple group categorization. By modeling inclusive thinking and behavior you show your child how to handle the complexity of group membership well. Also you show your child that you accept them as an ingroup member even if they do not fit neatly into stereotypical categories.
Tip 17: Model inclusive behavior. When exclusionary behavior happens in front of your child, gently correct those who make exclusionary statements whether directed at your child or not. For example say, “well actually I know someone who does/doesn’t do that.” or say, “oh, really, I hadn’t noticed that.”
Why? Children pay attention to everything. If their ingroup member lets exclusionary comments slide in a conversation, shouldn’t they do the same and also believe them! That only promotes and reproduces exclusionary behavior.
Tip 18: When your child stereotypes or points out a difference indicating they are outgrouping someone, even casually, take the opportunity to align the groups differently. Point out similarities between them instead. At the extreme, play a game in which you ask your child to participate in naming as many similarities as possible.
Why? People are inclined to notice differences. They have to be trained to see similarities. Concentrating on similarities helps children to be flexible in how they are able to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups. This could give them a considerable advantage when they are older.
Tip 19: Explain the group categorization process to your child in accessible language. Let them know sometimes we try to make ourselves feel better by making other people feel bad but that this isn’t nice. Explain that when it happens to them, they can do the same thing back in a way that facilitates empathy not exclusion.
Why? Children aren’t necessarily mean. They just don’t have the same techniques to make themselves have high self-esteem. Your child can help the other person appreciate the situation better and become an ingroup member. My daughter said to her father, “Daddy, sometimes little kids forget things.” It reinforced that they were different and simultaneously evoked empathy because of the similarity that sometimes daddy’s forget things to.
Tip 20: Go out of your way to promote similarities across genders.
Why? The most accepted categorization in the country is the presumed differences between men and women. Your children will confront this dichotomy in the media, school, their workplaces, amongst friends, and in religious institutions. Unlike these places, whether they confront this at home is something you can control. We can never know the way our exclusionary behavior as parents impacts our children in particular. Overall it makes boys less disciplined, less likely to do well in school, more aggressive, and less able to show a full range of emotions. It makes girls less confident, less independent, more materialistic, and less willing to risk success if it means hurting someone else’s feelings. Your exclusionary behavior as parents will reinforce and heighten the exclusion they feel from all these other influences. Your inclusive behavior as parents showing that your child is in your ingroup regardless of gender or gendered behavior will help counteract these effects.