My son is a very competitive student especially when it comes to subjects that he has a natural affinity for, such as math. He views himself as an outstanding math student and consistently does exceptionally well in areas related to math. He is constantly trying to outperform all of his classmates on their classwork, homework, and timed-tests (Remember the “mad minute”? The one minute times-table drills from third grade.)
Recently he came home from school and shared some all-to-familiar information about his classmates with me. “Koreans are good at math.”, he told me when trying to explain why two of his classmates did better than him on his math quiz.
Whoa! I thought. How could my son, be thinking this way? I have never given him any impression that performance in any area is related to the way a person looks, where a person comes from, or what a person believes. In fact, I have relentlessly done and said everything I could think of to prevent the kind of thinking he was doing at that exact moment. So where did I go wrong? And how should I respond now?
First, I had to stop making his statement about some parenting misstep that I had made along the way. After all, as a high schooler, I remember explaining my Chinese neighbor’s superior performance in school as a product of his cultural background as well. Children (and adults) often interact with one or two people from a particular cultural group, different from their own, and make assumptions about how or why the entire group of people do the things they do. This is called stereotyping. While it can be considered natural human behavior to stereotype, it becomes dangerous when we allow (consciously or unconsciously) stereotypes to impact how we act, interact with, and treat others that are different from us. And this is where parenting can make a difference.
When children share their observations, like my son did, about Koreans and math, parental response becomes pivotal. As parents we have an opportunity to help our children develop a broad understanding of the differences and similarities between themselves and others as well as the similarities and differences within a cultural group. So I continued the discussion by asking my son why he thought Koreans are good at math. He replied that he scored the highest in math before the two Korean students enrolled in his class. Now the two Korean students in his class always score the highest on timed tests. I reminded him of his background and asked him if all of the kids in his class that looked like him are as good at math as he is. What about all the right-handed kids, are they all good at math? How about all of the kids with dark hair, are they all good at math? He quickly got the message. I could see the realization spread across his face.
“Okay mom, I get it.”
“You get what?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like. Anyone can be good at math”, he replied.
As simple as it may seem right now, that is all he needed to realize. Our conversation was appropriate for an 8-year-old. Hopefully this is the foundation on which he continues to build his understanding of difference.