Steve Livingston

Steve Livingston

Tinted Lenses

Parents as Propagandists (Part Two)

Teaching our children to hate as we hate.

Posted Mar 18, 2009

Last week I presented the case of a Canadian mother whose children were removed from her home after the eldest (7 years old) came to school with numerous "white pride" symbols inked on her body in permanent marker.  Both adults in the home identified as white nationalists, and there is archival evidence (e.g., web postings) of each parent espousing views consistent with neo-Nazi ideology.

Many observers -- including the mother herself -- speculated that the children were most likely removed due to the parents' unpopular beliefs.  The intervening Child and Family Services agency stated publicly that there was no political motivation in their act; other issues were cited, including frequent school absenteeism and concerns about illegal substance use.

Should indoctrination into white nationalist ideology (or some similar belief system) be enough to warrant investigation of abuse?

Many observers have also readily accepted cyclical models of family violence, substance abuse, and crime, to the point where appeals to "break the cycle" accompany much public information on these issues.  It therefore seems odd that we should be relatively squeamish about exploring generational cycles of development and transmission of prejudice.

Psychologists have long considered prejudice in the context of juvenile development (e.g., Aboud, 2005; Allport, 1954, Chapters 18-19).  In the psychoanalytic and existential traditions, group identity is thought to serve as an early basis of ego strength, and threats to the value of that identity are faced aggressively (for a recent example detailing therapy with an anti-Semitic patient, see Ryan & Buirski, 2001).  In the social cognitive tradition, people are thought to actively seek out methods of categorization in the service of better understanding their social environments.  Young children tend to focus on attributes that are perceptually salient, such as skin, eye and hair coloration, physical shape (e.g., weight and height), gender, age, and attractiveness.

However, because salience is not merely a matter of what is easiest to perceive with our eyes, social influences may also shape what is salient.  Consider the familiar ring of "good morning, boys and girls!" heard in elementary school environments, and what additional message it conveys beyond "good morning, children!" -- i.e., that gender is important enough to use as dividing line within the class.  Because children readily internalize what they are taught by their parents, the categories that parents deem important will strongly shape the categories that children rely upon when making judgments (Bigler & Liben, 2007).

In this way, a biased ideology can set up biased social perceptions.  Combined with the egocentric nature of belief during childhood (i.e., "I believe it, so it must be what others believe"), this could have profound implications for peer relationships, for (dis)engagement in stereotyped activities/classes, etc.  The family ideology will also likely conflict with the (relatively) egalitarian tenor of public education, setting up the child for accusations of conduct problems, lower intelligence, and the like.  Ideologues seem to recognize this, which may account for the popularity of home schooling among members of these movements.

Consider that the actions of the parent in these cases can have negative implications not only for the child, but also for the peers and associates of that child.  In some cases, the indirect harm to others may outweigh the direct harm to the indoctrinated child.  For example, imagine that Jerry is raised by a misogynistic single father, Tom, who makes no secret of his attitudes toward women.  Jerry will probably not experience direct harm from these attitudes -- in fact, Jerry's biological sex would likely gain him favor from Tom -- but the girls and women in his life (e.g., classmates, teachers, relatives, clergy, etc.) may experience direct harm from Jerry, in part because Tom's early socialization practices encouraged Jerry to denigrate, control, and hurt women.

In the Winnipeg case, we have a hint of this from the mother herself: "I didn't understand why the school would be so alarmed. Then I saw things [in the documentation from CFS] that my daughter had said [to school officials]. My daughter was talking about a good way to kill a nigger [emphasis added]. These aren't things I told her. These would have been things my husband told her," D.G. said.

It seems that practices with negative consequences outside the family unit would draw special attention, in the same way that downing a six-pack of Coors in your own home is fine, but doing the same while behind the wheel of your car is grounds for imprisonment.  However, child abuse laws in North America tend to focus on damage (physical/mental) inflicted on the at-risk child rather than these types of ripple effects. The closest thing I found in my search were vague references to "corruption of moral development" or "raising an unruly child"; these tended to be idiosyncratic local laws rather than language used in national policy.

Given the severe obstacles it creates for the child's own social development, and the possibility of indirect harm to others, it seems there is reason to be concerned about ideological training from the standpoint of child welfare.

But I can't quite bring myself to say that it should be made illegal.  In Part Three, I'll explain why.



Aboud, F. E. (2005).  The development of prejudice in childhood and adolescence.  In In J. F. Dovidio, P. Glick, and L. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport (pp. 310-326).  Oxford: Blackwell.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children's social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 162-166.

Ryan, M. K., & Buirski, P. (2001).  Prejudice as a function of self-organization.  Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18(1), 21-36.

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Steve Livingston

Steve Livingston is a social psychologist based in Toronto.

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