Stereotype threat is perhaps one of the best-documented sociological phenomena, but one which most parents are not aware of. Stereotype threat can dramatically affect your child’s performance in school, relationships, and other important life tasks. Here is everything you need to know about stereotype threat and how to prevent it from negatively affecting your child.
What Is Stereotype Threat?
Stereotype threat is the negative reaction a person has when their race, class, gender, or other socioeconomic category is made salient before they have to perform well at a task. If their group stereotypically performs poorly in that particular area, a perfectly competent person is likely to perform poorly if made aware of their group beforehand. For example, women are stereotypically bad at math. A woman who takes a math test after checking a “female” gender box is likely to do less well on the test than she otherwise would have done. Men are stereotypically bad at empathy. A man whose girlfriend says to him, “You’re acting like a man!” prior to a talk about the relationship is more likely to struggle to express empathy.
How Does Stereotype Threat Affect Your Child?
Stereotype threat can affect your child in many ways. Girls may do poorly in math and engineering, or may have difficulty asserting themselves at school. Boys may struggle with interpersonal relationships and aggression. The school environment is particularly bad at triggering stereotype threat because children are often divided into girls’ and boys’ groups, which causes children to become aware of their gender before performing a task. This, in turn, increases the likelihood a child will do poorly. Similarly, a child who is of a different race or class status than the majority of her peers is more likely to be aware of her group membership and thus be affected by stereotype threat.
How Can I Prevent Stereotype Threat From Affecting My Child?
In school, children are most likely to be affected by gender-based stereotype threat, so encourage your child’s teachers not to divide children along gender lines, and educate your child’s teachers about the problems of stereotype threat. Class can also become relevant in school as well as race, so if you’re concerned that this may cause your child to underperform, it is, again, important to talk to your child’s teacher as well as encourage your child to think of himself as an individual instead of a group representative.
At home, try not to point out your child’s group membership. Don’t talk about “girl things” and “boy things” and try not to blame things your child does on his or her sex. Perhaps most importantly, talk to your child about the concept of stereotypes. Make sure he understands that stereotypes are untrue myths about a group, and just because he hears boys or girls are better at something does not make it true. Your child’s awareness of stereotypes will make him less likely to be affected by them in the first place!