Google+ Authentic Parenting: Anti-Bias Parenting

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Anti-Bias Parenting

Guest Post By Sarah MacLaughlin, Author of the Award-winning Amazon Bestselling book, What Not To Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children

When I was a teacher I learned about this very cool idea—The Bias Free Classroom—I even had a guidebook: The Anti-Bias Curriculum by Louise Derman-Sparks. Examining biases was for some reason totally attractive to me. Questioning your assumptions is such a perspective broadening exercise. I loved the idea that some of our beliefs about the world, and ourselves, were held so dear that we were completely unaware of their existence. Isn’t there a saying about asking a fish what water is, and they don’t know, because they’re swimming in it? I wanted to recognize the water. That meant paying much closer attention.

So, what is the water? And just to be clear: I’m not saying the water is bad. I am only saying that the water is worth noticing. Several cultural structures to examine, or re-examine, as the case may be, are listed below. Also, some thought provoking questions and comments to start the un-layering process.

Belief: Children should develop independence as soon as possible. Our culture is obsessed with independence.

From a very young age, whether subtly or overtly, American children are taught that individualism is of the highest importance. We say things like, “You did it all by yourself,” and “You’re such a big girl,” and, “Only babies do that” to children frequently. Many years ago, my mind was completely blown at a diversity training that showed a video of the complete normalcy of adults spoon-feeding five-year-olds in some cultures. What makes you uncomfortable about depending on other people? What would our society (and our parenting) look like if we referenced a more inter-dependent model?

Belief: Boys are completely different than girls. 

But in my work with hundreds of toddlers and preschool children, “masculine” and “feminine” traits are widely dispersed among various children depending on their temperaments, not necessarily their gender. Girls spit, shoot guns, and play with trucks. Boys cuddle dolls and dress up as fairy princess. The media, with its never-ending blue for boys and pink for girls marketing strategy, has weaseled its way into almost every facet of life (think toothbrushes, cereal, and bicycles). This means that children are sent strong messages from (as the ad execs like to call it) the cradle to the grave—messages that they get loud and clear. Those messages will become their water if we don’t intervene.

Do you offer non-gender conforming toys to your children? Do you use biased language? For example: Assuming that doctors and firefighters are always men. (I self-correct when I catch myself in that one. It happens more often than I’d like to admit.)

Image: Antigallery on Flickr
Belief: Children should be kept as safe as can be. I read one of the recently written articles about over-parenting that included a photo of a mother standing next to a bubble-wrapped boy. That hit home.

I can so relate to wanting my child to always be safe. And it is so not going to happen. It was a revelation to me when a friend described an incident in which she carefully assessed her young child’s climbing, told him it was possible he would get hurt, but then refrained from stopping climbing. She did not stop the fall or the resulting minor injury from happening either. (She also didn’t scold or lecture him when he got hurt. She likely said, “You were climbing and you fell. I’m sorry that happened. Are you okay?”)

Children, like all people, learn from their mistakes. Trying to keep them safe always can create undue stress and anxiety. For us—and for them.

What would it look like if you were calm and supportive of your child’s age appropriate risk-taking? Could you be a safe harbor for them to land in and feel the pain and disappointment that comes when things don’t go well? (See my post Safety First for more exploration of this topic.)

Belief: We should be happy. We want to be happy. We want our partners and children to be happy.

I hate to say it, but happy is not realistic. It’s not sustainable. We are just not built for all-the-time-happy. We are wired for a myriad of emotions—a range from the deepest sadness to the highest exaltation. None of these feelings are unwanted. All of them help us stay grounded in ourselves.

Emotional honesty, intelligence, and literacy might be better goals—emotions help us get back to a regulated state when we have lost our equilibrium. Dr. Edward Hallowell wrote a wonderful book called The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness that explores the concept of happiness vs. joy, and how what we value gets conveyed to our kids. It’s a great read as a jumping of place for discovering things about not only your parenting, but how you were parented as well. What messages did you receive about happiness, achievement and success? What messages are you sending?

Now you have looked at some dearly held social constructs and started to unpeel the many layers of the onion. Since you have come to recognize that you are swimming, what new possibilities do you see?

Special Giveaway! 
Please comment on this post about some of the biases you've noticed in the way we parent today. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway -- to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you're the winner!

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah's blog .

Also, you can enter at Sarah's site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Go here to enter.

About The Author 
Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the "Parenting Toolbox" column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent and Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life's work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site and her blog.



  1. The thing I notice the most is adults trying to disuade behaviours in children that would be admired in adults. My 4 year old son has a mind of his own, he is intelligent, focussed and can be outspoken. If an adult showed these traits, he/she would be admired for them, but when a child shows them, they are told to be quiet or that it isn't an appropriate way for a child to behave.
    Some days, my sons' behaviour can be quite testing on my patience, but i'm doing my best to not squash it out of him because I like the person he is becoming - becoming an awesome person starts in childhood & this is the time to encourage them when they are in a safe environment with their parents and family.

    1. That is an excellent point. We tend to lose our patience with a child who disagrees with us much sooner than with an adult. We speak to children in ways we would never speak to an adult.

  2. I have been pondering bias since reading this post last night. My bias at the moment is towards parents who have a parenting style that is totally different to mine. I find being in the company of such people tiring, wearing and immensely difficult especially as some of these folks have been friends for years pre-children. My youngest also finds it hard and is very sensitive to the shouting and the negative atmosphere in their houses. I am choosing not to spend time with these families. I am struggling to work out a way to resolve an awkward situation of not wanting to turn my back on old friends but at the same time not enjoying their company any longer.

  3. That is such a good point. And likewise, we speak to children very differently in similar situations. For example if I had a difference of opinion with an adult vs. a child--my tone, etc would likely be much crankier with the child.

  4. catfish_friend(at)yahooJuly 9, 2012 at 8:57 AM

    My husband and I used to joke that we need to make kid t-shirts that said, "I don't share.". And this was not because our daughter did not share, but more as a comment on how adults often insist that children share. Considering an adult would never expect another adult to share her diamond wedding ring or BMW with a stranger at the gym, it is an interesting adult bias our culture has of children's acceptable behavior and treatment of possessions.


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