Thursday, May 08, 2008

Making What We're Told Come True

Recently My Too-Smart Brother Guru shared with me this blog post noting this column describing (yes, I know this sourcing is getting really indirect) an experiment by psychologist Sian Beilock regarding what's known as "stereotype threat."

Two groups of female college students were given a math test. But before the test, one group was told that the purpose of the experiment was to find out why men usually do better at math. And? "The students who were reminded of the stereotype that women are worse at maths did worse at maths, performing 10-15% less well than the others."

In other cases, "
merely asking school children to tick a box to indicate their ethnicity, before completing an intellectual ability test, causes black pupils to do worse than if there's no tick box." Yikes!

This trick of the mind can work in our favor if we're reminded of a "positive" stereotype (i.e., south-east Asian girls did better on math tests when reminded not of gender but of their ethnicity--a group typed as good at math--rather than gender).

The stereotype threat is that "stereotypes about what certain people can do, however unjustified to begin with, become true because they eat away at us; we make them real."

As a parent and especially a transracial adoptive parent, I find this fascinating and also sobering.
What we push our children to try, how well we expect them to do, and how we communicate the value of effort vs. success can have a powerful impact on their confidence or lack thereof. What they're told becomes what they tell themselves, and prophecies become self-fulfilling.

So many stereotypes are ingrained in our world, just waiting to remind our kids that boys will be boys, girls gossip, smart kids don't have to study, some hair is good hair, and big boys don't cry. Non-white kids often feel the added burden of the extra layer of stereotypes against which they are examined as they play basketball, dance, use slang, excel at math, wear baggy pants, and cluster with those who look like themselves. My child will have to find and keep her own balance as she navigates the no-win minefield telling her that if she does certain things she's "acting black" and if she doesn't she's "not black enough."

Being aware of what messages we and others are sending our kids is a constant battle. If we're always complimenting her beauty, will she think it's more important than her brains? Am I expecting and therefore reinforcing certain abilities or traits or behavior from her because she's African? adopted? a girl? our first child? so much like me? my chance to live vicariously? We can err on the side of paying no attention to our messages or on the side of overanalyzing and overcompensating at every turn.

Yet no matter what we do, each child comes with their own strengths
and fears and stubborn spots and ways of expressing themselves. They may seem to be just like us or to come from some other, utterly opposite planet--or maybe both in the same day--and all we can really know is that though we shape them, God made them. We can't alter their person or potential one whit, but we can help them stretch them to their fullest.

And so what will I tell my children? What is the essential thing I want them to know so that they can be? I think it is that they are loved, and that they are loving. God willing, both will be reflected with abundant clarity, this truth will be made true, and they will become who they were made, with love, to be.

(But to be honest, I really wouldn't mind if one of them could also be really good at football or a really good singer . . . )


Kevin Kroondyk said...

Have you ever seen Jane Elliot's study on 3rd graders and eye color? Pretty interesting experiment.

Anonymous said...

wow - thank you for this!! powerful stuff, and kind of scary.

Us said...

It's an uphill fight. While we deliberately do not refer to people's race or size when speaking about them, Roman comes home from preschool (!) mouthing things he's heard from others (gender stereotypes mostly, but we've heard others). It's hard to be a good parent!

wmw said...

Kevin, I'd heard of that but forgotten. Thanks for the link!