How to Teach Your Child to be Unbiased with Toys and Play
Robin Shaw, J.D., M.S.W. is the Recruitment Manager for The Oaks Academy, a racially and socioeconomically diverse, Christ-centered school in downtown Indianapolis. She is also a Justice Advocate, Administrative Law Judge, member of the Junior League of Indiana, and serves on the board of the Children’s Bureau/Families First.
Additionally, Robin has worked in education for the past 15 years and is qualified to discuss the educational value of individual toys. Just recently, Robin became a Genius of Play Ambassador and as a woman of color, will contribute a diverse perspective to the program.
- Purchase ethnically diverse toys for your children
- Encourage the use of positive attributes when describing characters
- Increase the diversity in the movies watched and the books read with your children
- Familiarize yourself with who your child plays with
- Be the best role model you can be!
Representation matters. It's a phrase we often hear these days, but I didn't know how real it was until I visited Disney World several years ago when I returned for a family reunion vacation sponsored by my parents, who LOVE Disney and insisted that my children experience it. Happy to oblige (who am I to turn down Disney magic), we came along and tried to take in as much as possible.
There I was, in a throng of people watching the daily parade when Princess Tiana appeared. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched her go by waving - at ME (or at least I'm sure she was waving at me because I was waving vigorously at HER). At 37 years old, I was so awestruck at the sight of a princess that looked like me, I nearly dropped my now dripping ice cream cone on the pristine pathway that she rode by on.
Why was I so overcome by emotion? I'd grown up with plenty of African American role models and had dolls of every color. What I had never seen, however, was a black princess, and it struck an impossible, deeply buried cord that I didn't even realize was there.
According to www.psychologyinaction.org, a review of 476 shows for children featuring 1,654 main characters:
- 65% of characters were white and female characters were more likely to be non-white or racially ambiguous than male characters
- Only 38% of characters were women or girls
- Only 2% of characters were portrayed as having lower socioeconomic status
- Only 1% of characters had any sign of physical disability or chronic disease
Why is this a problem? Research* shows that a lack of representation in media can lead to negative psychological outcomes for those with identities that are underrepresented or negatively portrayed. Children who don't see themselves when they look around grow up believing that people who look like them don't have value or that they can’t ever be certain things like princesses or superheroes.
How it Started
Dr. Kenneth Clark, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia, demonstrated this through the now infamous “doll tests” he conducted with his wife, Dr. Mamie Clark, the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia. In short, during these tests, both white and black children between the ages of 3 and 7 overwhelmingly showed a preference for the white doll. “The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.” We can conclude the same for children of any race or gender that is not positively portrayed through toys, play, and media.
How it’s Going
Thankfully, nearly 80 years have passed since the Clarks ran the doll test, and there is a dazzling array of toys of every shade and color. We now have television shows and movies like the critically acclaimed Black Panther, with accompanying toy lines. There is a myriad of ways to demonstrate and model an appreciation of their own culture and ethnic makeup and that of others in fun and exciting ways. Sesame Street - which has always celebrated diversity - even has anti-racist programming that teaches children how to spot unfair treatment and implement diversity and inclusion even when they play. While more is needed, hope is on the horizon.
What You Can Do Now
- Buy your children toys of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Look for some toys that look like them and some that don't so that they begin to appreciate the diversity of the world.
- Play with mindfulness. Consider the words you use when you play with your child and their toys. Refer to all the dolls as beautiful and all the superheroes as amazing. Consider if one type of character is always the “good guy” or the “bad guy.” Ask your child to describe the dolls and toys and gently guide them to positive attributes for all types of people.
- Watch movies and read books from different backgrounds and cultures and get involved in your school to see that they offer these types of books in their libraries.
- Seek diverse playgroups and schools. Be sure to try to diversify your play or friend groups. Visit a friend's home of a different ethnic background. Ask friends from school of different races if they would like to have a playdate. Encourage your children to know that their BFFs don't necessarily have to look exactly like them.
- Model inclusive behavior. What we do is more important than what we say! Be sure that your child sees and hears you speaking and playing inclusively, and they will do the same.
*Research: Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2017