Before You Begin
Having a mindset that people are mostly set in their ways can make us believe that it isn’t worthwhile to meet or interact with people who might have attitudes that seem different from our own. This kind of unchangeable mindset can lead us to view all people who have negative attitudes about others as forever “bad.” On the other hand, people who have a mindset that peoples’ attitudes can change may be more open to interacting with people who seem different from them—even though it could be really difficult.
This kind of changeable mindset can help us recognize how people who have negative biases about others are capable of learning and overcoming their prejudiced beliefs sometimes. Of course, different circumstances might lead you to have one mindset or another, and that will be important to think through and discuss with your teen. For example, if you or your teen encounter people with prejudiced attitudes about your identity and who pose an imminent danger to you such as hateful violence because of your race, then you will want to provide your teen with guidance to ensure their safety. Threatening circumstances such as these will necessarily involve different kinds of discussions between you and your teen. This practice will mostly highlight the possible benefits that can come from having a mindset that explores how people can work to change their attitudes over time.
Having these conversations with your teen can be hard at first. With regular practice, these conversations can become much more comfortable. What’s more, this activity is backed by research with evidence that it works.
The Brain’s Ability to Change
Begin by enthusiastically inviting your teen to watch a video with you or read a news story about scientific discoveries on the brain’s ability to change.
Then, model your thought process by sharing your reflections on how the science of brain development has led some people to think that attitudes can also change because attitudes spring from the mind.
You can discuss the following reflections with your teen:
- “Scientists have discovered that when you have a thought or a feeling, the pathways in your brain send signals to other parts of your brain that lead you to do one thing or another. By changing their brain’s pathways, or their thoughts and feelings, people can actually change and improve how they behave after challenges and setbacks. So it’s not that some people are ‘rejects’ or that other people are ‘bad.’ Everyone’s brain is a ‘work in progress.’”
- You can share with your teen a time when you changed your thoughts or feelings about something or someone, especially about a particular social or cultural identity.
Changing Our Attitudes About Prejudice
You can later also discuss with your teen whether they think this brain research on changeable attitudes can also include prejudices people have about particular social or cultural identities like race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion, age, national origin, ability, or political orientation.
For example, you can discuss the following reflections with your teen:
- “People’s and our own attitudes change all the time. Prejudice is an attitude and prejudice does not have to be permanent because even after it develops, it, too, can be changed.”
Invite your teen to discuss with you what you know about leaders from social movements–recent and past–who had the civil courage to work to change negative, biased attitudes. For example, you can discuss the women’s rights movement, African American civil rights movement, disability rights movement, Chicano and farmworkers movement, Asian American civil rights movement, Indigenous civil rights, and LGBTQ rights movement.
Responding to Prejudice
During your conversation, as an option, you can model the way you are thinking about the answers to some of the questions below as a way to invite them to share back-and-forth with you their thoughts. You can take inspiration from and adapt the following prompts using a familiar conversational style that feels natural for you.
- Was there ever a time when you were with another teen who expressed prejudiced attitudes? What can be helpful about having a changeable mindset when you’re with another teen who is expressing a prejudiced attitude? What can be hard and risky about it?
- Did a changeable mindset ever lead you to speak to another teen or adult who was saying something prejudiced? Was it easy or hard? What did you say? How did they respond? How did you feel?
- Have your friends or other teens ever spoken to you about something prejudiced that you’ve said? Did they approach you with a changeable mindset or an unchangeable mindset? What did they say to you? How did you respond? How did you feel?
- Have you had any prejudiced attitudes that you’ve changed?
- Does a changeable mindset mean that all people will change into completely different people overnight? Why does changing attitudes take such a long time and a lot of effort?
- When would it not be OK or safe to interact with someone who has prejudiced attitudes? What are some other things you could do when you learn that someone has prejudiced attitudes? When would it be important for teens to come to parents, caregivers, teachers, or other trusted adults when they encounter someone with prejudiced attitudes?
Share your own or your family’s stories about resisting and overcoming biased attitudes to show your teen that someone close to them has been able to do this. What’s more, invite your teen to watch movies about people who overcome prejudices and develop friendships with people from different cultural and social identities. For example, Accidental Courtesy is a documentary about a Black musician who tries to meet and become friends with members of the KKK, many of whom have never met a Black person. Purple Mountains is a documentary about a professional snowboarder and mountaineer who goes on a journey to find common ground with people across political backgrounds to protect our world. CODA is a coming-of-age comedy-drama film whose name comes from the protagonist, a child of deaf adults (C.O.D.A.) who is the only hearing member in her working-class, fisherman’s family. The film provides a perspective of one family’s communication struggles and victories, and disconnection and connection.
Also consider sharing stories about people not resisting and overcoming biased attitudes. What is at stake in that refusal? What emotions and thoughts arise from these stories of refusal? How do these stories make you feel about the people involved?
Express encouragement and gratitude to your teen for sharing with you their thoughts about mindsets, prejudice, and possibilities for interacting with people with prejudiced attitudes. Make a plan to continue the conversation and invite them to share ideas for other questions to discuss together.