‘Why do you have an accent?’ Kids’ questions might be innocent, but they can hurt.

Microaggressions can have long-lasting effects. Here’s how to prevent them.

Published 22 Jan 2021, 19:35 GMT
Photograph by Viktorcvetkovic / Getty Images

When Hannah Maree Eun Pinski was nine years old, she was sharing middle names with friends in the school cafeteria. One of her white classmates “joked” that her Korean middle name was weird, then pulled at the corners of her eyes, and said, “I guess it makes sense since you have ugly eyes.” Everyone at the table laughed.

Pinksi, who was the only person of colour at the table, says her classmate likely didn’t intend to be hurtful, only to make a joke. But over a decade later, it remains a vivid memory.

“That was the first time I remember someone saying something like that to me, and it really hit home,” she says. “I thought, well, if everyone agreed with her, then it must be true. I still don't feel confident about how I look.”

Microaggressions are often subtle, everyday exchanges that convey bias toward people based on race, gender identity, religion, age, ability, class, or membership to another group. And childhood microaggressions can have lifelong effects, says psychologist Kevin Nadal, author of several books on microaggressions.

“Research over the past 10 years has demonstrated microaggressions are related to a lot of different health and physical outcomes, including depression and anxiety, trauma, physical health issues, sleep issues, alcohol use, and body image issues,” he says.

Microaggressions are sometimes so subtle that even adults don’t always realise they’re using them. So children, who are naturally curious, may not understand what a microaggression is or how their actions affect others. For example, without understanding what could be hurtful to another child, they may ask, Where is your family from? Why do you have an accent? Why is your skin a different colour than mine?

“Those are all questions of curiosity, but the impact of those questions on the other child builds up,” says Roberto Montenegro, a psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Microaggressions are not only about hurt feelings—they’re coded messages of disapproval based on identity.”

Here’s how parents can help their kids identify, correct, and prevent microaggressions.

Helping kids identify microaggressions

One of the best ways parents can help their kids understand microaggressions is to educate themselves first, Montenegro says. Start by reading books and articles on race and racism to understand the experiences of marginalised groups and how systemic oppression influences society. Although microaggressions aren’t only race-based, this can help parents understand bias more broadly.

Studies show that children associate racial groups with certain traits as early as age three—long before parents are talking to them about race. So though it’s natural for kids to ask why another person’s skin colour is different from theirs, why a classmate has two mommies, or why people have different accents, that curiosity can become harmful when it makes others feel like they’re different and therefore not as good.

“Two of the most common messages microaggressions send are, ‘You're different or less than me,’ and ‘You don't belong here,’” Montenegro says.

Instead, he advises teaching children how to express their curiosity in different ways—and in appropriate contexts. (“Instead of asking someone if you can touch her hair, tell her she has beautiful hair.”) He also encourages parents to stress why it’s important to avoid “otherness” in language. (“People have different skin tones and they’re all beautiful. But we don’t ask people why their skin colour is different from ours, because that might sound like you think different is bad, and that’s hurtful.”)

“With young children, it's helpful to equate microaggressions to hurtful language or actions that relate to someone's identity,” Montenegro says. “It's often unintentional, but it still hurts the other person.”

Finally, he suggests encouraging kids to ask you questions about differences instead of the person they’re curious about. Then continue to have open conversations about our differences—and why they should be celebrated.

What to do if a child uses a microaggression

A child’s microaggression usually isn’t intentionally hurtful. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. Montenegro recommends addressing the behaviour privately and immediately.

First, identify the behaviour and describe it. (“The teacher told me that you didn’t let John play in your group at recess because you couldn't understand him. I want you to know that's hurtful language.”)

Then, try asking the child what they think it was like for the other child to hear that, Montenegro says. After the child engages in perspective-taking, validate them. ("We all do this, but we have to retrain our brain not to make judgments based on what people look like or sound like.”)

“We want to teach them about empathy, so remind them what it's like to be hurt or teased by others,” Nadal says. “Make it a teachable moment.”

Keep in mind that microaggressions aren’t always verbal, Nadal says. It can also take the form of exclusion, which is more difficult to identify. He recommends asking questions. (“Who did you play with at playtime? Did someone else want to play with you that you didn’t want to play with?”)

“I don't think kids are necessarily consciously aware of excluding,” Nadal adds. “But you might get a sense that a kid is only playing with other boys or only playing with other white kids.” Parents can ask questions and then make suggestions without accusing or shaming a child. (“I noticed you're playing a lot with these kids. Have you ever wanted to play with so and so?”)

What if my child is the victim of microaggressions?

Kids don’t always open up about microaggressions, but Nadal says normalising conversations can help.

“One really helpful thing is to say things like, tell me three things that you liked about today, and tell me three difficult things,” he says. “It gives you the opportunity to hear more details as opposed to asking general questions and getting a general response.”

It’s natural for parents to feel defensive, but Nadal recommends helping the child process the emotional impact before jumping into problem-solving. “Try to mitigate or challenge any internalised messages that they may have experienced as a result of the incident,” he says. For example, if someone made a hurtful comment about their hair, remind them their hair is beautiful.

You can also explain that sometimes kids make fun of others because they’re insecure or have learned hurtful messages about people who are different. “Provide them with as much explanation as possible so that that child doesn't internalise,” Nadal says. "If they internalise it, that becomes a traumatic sort of moment that they hold on to. Maybe that leads to issues with self-esteem about their looks, their racial identity, or gender or sexual orientation because they believe these messages are true.”

Books can help, too. “Children can see themselves in stories, learn that they're not alone, and that other kids have had similar experiences,” Montenegro says. “That helps with empowerment and with setting boundaries.” Some books he recommends include Don’t Touch My Hair, 10,000 Dresses, and The Name Jar.

In some instances, parents might need to step in and talk to a teacher or the parents of the other child. “Before that happens, encourage your child to stand up for themselves or seek additional support from teachers or friends,” Nadal says. “That gives them a sense of independence and resilience in being able to solve their own problems.”

Preventing microaggressions

One of the most important things parents can do is be good models—that means acknowledging their own biases instead of pushing them away. Montenegro says that includes recognising and acknowledging when you use a microaggression so the child will start mimicking that behaviour of self-correction, curiosity, and growth. (“That was hurtful—why did I say that?”)

“Children repeat a lot of things that they hear adults say, even though they don't really know what they're saying,” Nadal says. “When children say things like ‘That's so gay’ or ‘That's retarded’ to convey that something’s different or they don't like it, this often is biased language that they may have heard from adults.”

Nadal encourages parents to have open conversations with their kids about discrimination and privilege, social justice, systems of oppression, and biases, no matter their background. This teaches children early to celebrate and accept diversity, but at the same make them aware that racism, sexism, ableism, and classism exists.

“Then kids can externalise it and say, ‘There isn't something wrong with me, or wrong with people different from me,’ but rather this is an example of the systems we live in,” he says.

“Instead of teaching them we live in a colourblind world, we should teach them that we live in a world in which people are treated differently,” Nadal adds. “Instead of trying to teach them that this utopian world exists, teach them how we can try to change that world.”

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