Dealing with Prejudice and Stereotyping: Guide for Parents


The UK population is becoming increasingly diverse. To ensure their potential for success children need to live and work amicably and effectively alongside others from a wide range of racial and cultural groups, backgrounds and abilities. One of the greatest obstacles to this is prejudice. While we would like to believe that prejudice is a problem of the past, this is not the case. Incidents of prejudice and discrimination still occur.

Children need to understand that there is no place for prejudice or discrimination during play or at home, school or place of work. 

Learning prejudice

Despite the best efforts of many parents and teachers, children can still learn prejudice and practice discrimination. How does this happen?

Prejudice is learned through living in and observing a society where prejudices exist. Children's opinions are influenced by what the people around them think, do and say. Even if you as a parent are a model of tolerance, your children could still be exposed to influences such as the media where difference is not always respected or where stereotypes are reinforced.

If no one explains that this is wrong a child may grow up thinking that this is the way it is supposed to be, and that people who have been discriminated against deserve this treatment. This is why it is so important to address issues of prejudice and discrimination when and wherever they occur, to point out inequities, and to let children know such ideas and actions are unacceptable. 

What can parents do about prejudice?

Make sure your children understand that prejudice and discrimination are wrong and unfair. Make it a firm rule that no person should be excluded or teased on the basis of race, religion, nationality or ethnicity, accent, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or appearance.

Help your children become sensitive to other people's feelings. Share stories and books with your children that help them to understand the points of view of other people. When personal conflicts occur, encourage your children to think about how the other person might be feeling. Studies indicate that caring, empathic children are less likely to be prejudiced.

Help your children understand the seriousness of name calling. Often young children do not know the meaning of the words they use, but they do know that the words will get a reaction from the victim. Children need to learn that discriminatory language is unacceptable and is as bad as undesirable physical behaviour. Children who use a racist or other hurtful name should be talked to right away. They need to understand that they have made a mistake and have hurt someone.

Help children recognize instances of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Point out and discuss discrimination when you see it and make sure children know how to respond to such attitudes and behaviours. Television, movies and newspapers often provide opportunities for discussion. Encouraging children's critical thinking ability may be the best antidote to prejudice.

Encourage your children to create positive change. Talk to your children about how they can respond to prejudice and discrimination. Confronting other children can be particularly hard, so children need to have a ready made response to such instances. If another child is called a hurtful name, a friend might simply say, "Don't call him/her that. Call him/her by his/her name." Or, if your child is the victim, "Don't call me that. That's not fair." or "You don't like to be called bad names and neither do I." In all cases, try to help your child to feel comfortable in pointing out unfairness.

Take appropriate action yourself against incidences of prejudice and discrimination. For example, if other adults use bigoted language around you or your children, you should not ignore it. Your children need to know that such behaviour is unacceptable even if it is from a familiar adult. A simple phrase will do: "Please don't talk that way around me or my children." or "That kind of joke offends me." Adults need to hold themselves to the same standards they want their children to follow.

Accept each of your children as unique and special. Let your children know that you recognize and appreciate their individual qualities. Children who feel good about themselves are less likely to be prejudiced. Also, notice unique and special qualities in other people and discuss them with your children. Children who have poor self-images are more vulnerable to developing prejudices. They may try to bolster their own worth by finding a group of people whom they can put down. An insecure child might think, "I may not be very good but I am better than those people."

Respond to children's questions and comments. Find out more about what your children think in order to know what misconceptions may need to be corrected. After you have determined what they think, respond with a simple, "I'm trying to understand why you said that, but I don't see it that way." Be direct. Be brief. Use language your children will understand. Examples of questions that might be addressed:

  • "Why don't people like those people? Why do people call them names?"

One answer could be: "Some people make judgments about a whole group people without knowing very much about them. Sometimes people are afraid of those who seem different from them and, unfortunately, they express that with name-calling and negative treatment. When people grow up with these ideas, sometimes it's hard to get rid of them."

It is important for children to know that they can help to overcome racism, sexism and all forms of bigotry. Show them how the choices they make can help to create a fairer world: "When a lot of children like you grow up, differences will become less and less important, and people will respect each other even for their differences."

  • "Why do those people look (or act) so funny? Why can't he walk? Why do they believe such strange things?"

Children need to realize that all people are different. It is important to communicate to children that we often think others are different simply because they are unfamiliar to us. We don't think our own beliefs and appearances are strange or funny because they are what we're used to. Point out that we must appear different to others, too.

  • "I don't like (name of group) people."

Such a comment needs to be handled carefully. It is important that you address such comments without making your children become defensive. With young children, the tone of the discussion should be one of exploring their thinking. A discussion might go as follows:

"You sound as if you know all the people who are (name of group), and that you don't like any of them. You can only like or dislike people you know. If you don't know someone, you can't have a good reason for liking or not liking them. There are children you may not like to play with, but their skin colour (religion, accent, appearance, size, etc.) should have nothing to do with it." Discuss with your children the character traits they look for in their friends, such as kindness, honesty, etc.

Some definitions explained

Stereotype: A standardised mental picture about a group of people that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgement. A stereotype assumes that all people who share a characteristic will conform to a certain type of behaviour; stereotypes prevent us from seeing people as individuals.

Prejudice: A preconceived, irrational, sometimes unconscious thought, belief, attitude, opinion or emotion not based on facts. Prejudice can be positive as well as negative and often involve strong feelings that can be difficult to change. Prejudice is pre-judging. A person who thinks, "I don't like (name of group)," is expressing a prejudice.

Discrimination: When people act on the basis of their prejudices or stereotypes, they are discriminating. Discrimination may mean putting other people down, not allowing them to participate in activities, or denying them something they are entitled to by right and law.

This guide was reviewed in November 2021.