This post is an excerpt from “A Cornell psychologist explains how to raise kids well in the age of Trump” by our scholar Katherine Kinzler, originally published on Quartz. Click here to read the full piece.
Like many, I hope to seek goodness amidst chaos. Regardless of who leads our nation, what can we do—individually and collectively—to inspire virtue in the next generation of children?
Encourage children to think independently. Psychology researchers used to reduce young children’s morality to their ability to follow authority. Fortunately, there is now good evidence that children can engage in their own moral reasoning. They can understand that just because an authority figure says that a negative action is permissible, it may nonetheless be morally wrong. Now is the time for us to encourage children to discover and evaluate evidence for themselves. We can remind them that just because a person is in power, their ideas are not always right.
Discuss the value of a democratic system. Legal scholar Tom Tyler and developmental psychologists Alex Shaw and Kristina Olson have shown that young and old people alike care about a fair decision-making process. People like it when they get their way, sure. But they also value a fair system.
Many Hillary Clinton supporters feel disappointed that Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election because of the electoral college. But while there may be good reasons to consider amending our system for the future, the fact is that Trump won under the system we have in place now. Children are smart enough to understand this. They can respect the process of a fair election, and they can also brainstorm how they might improve the procedural system used in the future.
Watch our own language. The psychologist Marjorie Rhodes has shown how quickly language can inadvertently transmit bias. When we talk about whole groups of people as being a certain way, it is very easy for children to learn biased feelings toward that group—and to think that members of that group are all the same. We should try our best to refer to people as individuals, not as members of racial, ethnic, or religious groups. It is also important to combat cultural notions that “boys play with trucks” or “girls like pink.” The more children hear about boys and girls as being two distinctly different kinds of groups, the more easily they pick up gender stereotypes.
Lead with actions, as well as with words. Children pick up on the nonverbal cues that we send them. This is true about learning racial prejudice and about learning adults’ views of who is high and low status. We can engage in simple acts of kindness and humanity, displayed toward people of all different groups. Invite friends who are different from you to your home. Smile at people who are different from you and sit next to them at the playground. Children are watching.
Expose children to diversity. In my own research, my colleagues and I have found that being exposed to multiple languages increases children’s abilities to take the perspective of others. Likewise, studies of children in racially heterogeneous schools suggest they are more egalitarian than children in racially homogeneous schools. Often, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of parents’ interest in diversity from the impact of the exposure itself. So cover your bases. Be the kind of parent who values diversity, and let your children enjoy the potential benefits of intergroup exposure.
Remind children that most people aren’t all good or all bad. Social psychologists Adam Waytz, Liane Young, and Jeremy Ginges have shown that different groups—including American Democrats versus Republicans and Israelis versus Palestinians—think their own groups’ aggressions are motivated by love for one another, whereas the other group’s aggressions are motivated by hate. In other words, an Israeli is likely to write off a Israeli’s hostility toward a Palestinian as being motivated by love of Israelis, whereas the same Israeli would think that a Palestinian’s hostility is owed to hatred.
It is easy to lapse into this kind of polarized thinking, which misattributes people’s motivations. Adults and children alike can be reminded that often what we perceive as negative or hurtful acts do not stem from equivalently negative or hurtful intentions. It is never a bad idea to consider how you or a loved one might feel if the tables were turned.
If you’re a woman, consider getting into politics—and encourage girls to do the same. In a university setting, we often worry about the dearth of women in math and science fields. But in multiple levels of American politics, there is also an underrepresentation of women. Building a pipeline for female governance will be difficult without sufficient role models for girls to follow. Women who want to help can consider getting involved in politics themselves and by making themselves visible and accessible to a generation of girls who will be inspired to join them.
Together, people of all backgrounds can encourage their children to help build a nation that prides itself on embracing difference.
Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.