Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones...
...and names will also hurt me.
Posted Mar 08, 2019
We all know the nursery rhyme. Taught to young children to develop resilience in the face of unkind words, we armor our children with the strength to overcome negative interpersonal interactions. But what if we're wrong? What if words do have the power to hurt us?
Statistically speaking, increases in diversity should result in more interactions between diverse individuals. As the United States and the world becomes increasingly diverse, the opportunities to come into contact with diverse opinions, viewpoints and backgrounds will also increase. Citing theories of intergroup contact, psychologists have long been interested in the conditions under which the benefits of contact can be maximized, and how best to capture these benefits. One of the primary ways to maximize the benefits of intergroup contact is for all of the groups to have equal status. In the context of race in the United States, it is difficult to see how this condition is met.
As a result, intergroup contact can result in negative quality interactions such as discrimination. In the past few decades, research in psychology and public health has developed a growing interest in the effects of discrimination on minority groups. And this work has not focused solely on individuals in the United States. There is a growing recognition that discrimination is a concern for societies in which multiculturalism is a goal. The conclusions of this research are clear, discrimination is harmful.
Although most individuals have experienced discrimination, the frequency of discriminatory interactions are typically quite low and depend on factors like race and context. When discrimination does happen, it has far-reaching consequences for a host of outcomes such as anxiety, depression, self-esteem, risky behaviors, substance use, and academic outcomes. A recent meta-analysis of over 200 studies and 90,000 individuals focused specifically on adolescents and found consistent evidence for the detrimental effects of discrimination. However, the study also noted that the effects of discrimination were stronger for studies conducted among individuals in the United States compared to Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Further, longitudinal research finds that discrimination experienced in adolescence may have particularly important implications for subsequent adult health and functioning.
So what should parents and educators tell children and adolescents about the power of discriminatory words and behaviors? We should underscore that words and the way that we treat others can be just as detrimental as physical acts. Discrimination is not just what we say to each other, but also how we value and see people who are not from the same “groups.” We should shift our focus from where we are different and begin to emphasize our commonalities and universalities.
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