Tips for How Talk to Your Child about Exclusionary Behavior (Tips 1 & 2)

April 18th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

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. In the next ten days, I will post two tips per day with an extended discussion explaining why I recommend each tip.

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.

Peer pressure is based on this idea wherein kids try to pressure other kids to be part of their ingroup or risk being ostracized as an outgroup member. Bullying is another example of this wherein one or more children try to increase the value placed on their ingroup by ostracizing someone as an outgroup member.

However, parents and adults with the best intentions can also engage in exclusionary behavior based on ingroups and outgroups 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 by clearly communicating 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 but 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 wouldn’t even know it was going on or if they are even engaging in that type of behavior themselves. My tips, offered over the next ten days, will help parents talk to their children about exclusionary behavior.

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.

Visit The Communicated Stereotype tomorrow for additional tips.

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