Sometimes prejudice comes wrapped in pretty packages. People who probably think of themselves as totally open-minded and fair and who may have many commendable qualities can still have biases about different groups of people that can result in real damage to the targets of their prejudice.
The dynamics are particularly unsettling when the people with the biases are schoolteachers, and the people they are prejudiced against include children they teach – children who may be deeply influenced by their teachers who have such an important role in their lives.
Sometimes the things teachers say don’t even sound that bad at first. Consider, for example, this tweet:
“As a school teacher, there’s no question in my mind that children of married parents have a huge advantage. You can pick them out in the class on the first day: by and large secure, calm, and dressed appropriately. Don’t ask me why.”
When I first read this, I had to wait a day to write about it, because I found it so upsetting. (And no, I’m not a single parent nor any kind of parent.) This teacher has already decided, on Day 1 – before any of the children have had any opportunity to demonstrate their talents or motivation – that the children of married parents are superior to the children of single parents.
First of all, the teacher may be totally inaccurate in her assessment. It is entirely possible that the children of single parents are, on the average, just as secure, calm, and appropriately dressed as the children of married parents. Her perceptions may be misperceptions, distorted by her expectations. There is a lot of compelling research on this.
The teacher could also be led astray by her own lack of awareness of different norms and customs in different cultures and subcultures. What seems like “appropriate” dress to this particular woman may not fit the definition of appropriateness as understood by some of her students or their friends or families. Even qualities such as security and calmness can evidence in different ways in different people. Before I started studying single life, I spent many years researching nonverbal communication. I learned that people’s feelings of calmness (or anxiety) are not always apparent to others. People can misread other people’s feelings and characteristics. This should not come as a huge revelation, but the schoolteacher didn’t seem to realize it. Instead, she sounded sure of her perceptions.
Teachers’ expectations can influence more than their perceptions. They can also impact their students’ academic failures or successes. My graduate school advisor at Harvard, Robert Rosenthal, did a series of highly influential studies showing how teachers’ expectations can influence students’ performance. The process isn’t always as simple as a teacher evaluating the exact same answer more harshly if it comes from a student for whom she holds low expectations – although it can be. Sometimes more subtle dynamics are involved, things that might not even be noticed without systematic research. For example, when they are interacting with students for whom they have high expectations, teachers give them more time to respond to their questions and they interact with them more warmly, nonverbally. With students they don’t expect as much from, the teachers move along more quickly (perhaps assuming that the student isn’t going to come up with the answer anyway) and they are a bit chillier.
I have been suggesting that the schoolteacher may well be wrong in her perception that the children of married parents are calmer, more secure, and dressed more appropriately than the children of single parents. But suppose I’m the one who is wrong, and by some objective standard, the children of single parents in her classroom really are inferior in those ways. The key question is: Are those differences really about family structure (single parent vs. married parents) or could they be about something related to family structure?
For example, single-parent households are likely to be disadvantaged financially relative to married-parent households. That can occur not just for the obvious reason that there is probably just one income-earning adult rather than two, but also because of the many laws in the U.S. that benefit and protect only those adults who are married. Maybe if the single-parent families had the same economic resources as the married-parent families, the kids from both kinds of families would be equally calm, secure, and well-dressed. In fact, cross-cultural research supports this possibility.
Another meaningful way that the two kinds of families differ is in the value they are accorded in American society. Married-parent families are respected, admired, honored, and celebrated. Single-parent families are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and pitied. At some level – sometimes consciously – the kids know this. Maybe on Day 1, when the children of single parents walk into that classroom, they already realize that their teacher thinks less of them. That would undermine my security and sense of calm.
I doubt that the person who wrote the tweet is deliberately trying to disadvantage the children of single parents. She probably thinks she is just making an obvious and intelligent observation. I would not be surprised if she has many positive qualities. And if she does, that might make her prejudice even more dangerous. Hardly anyone will call her on it. She will get a lot of leeway.
Nonetheless, she may be causing real harm. If you ever read a study suggesting that the children of single parents get worse grades than the children of married parents, remember this schoolteacher and her tweet. She may be representative of many other teachers who decided before they had any evidence of academic acumen that the children of single parents just weren’t as good as the children of married parents.
[Want to know how single parents and their children really are doing? Take a look at this collection.]