The soft bigotry of low expectations and how it affects your children

silhouette of person raising its hand

Written by Katie

17/05/2022

My husband introduced me to this phrase many years ago and I’m obsessed with it for some reason.

What exactly is the soft bigotry of low expectations, I hear you ask?

Please, allow me to explain.

Originally used by George W. Bush in an address to the NAACP in 2000, he referred to it as a bias.

It’s the habit or practice of expecting less from members of disadvantaged groups and then due to that bias, implicitly encouraging them not to reach their full potential.

You’ve heard of the Pygmalion effect right? Simply put, where having high expectations can lead to improved performance.

Well, the opposite of that is the Golem effect.

Where low or negative expectations can lead to decreased performance.

The soft bigotry of low expectations is the Golem effect applied to an entire disadvantaged group.

George W. Bush was, of course, referring to the existence of racial bias.

My take

But then I started wondering about the extrapolation of the term to different disadvantaged groups in a different context.

Specifically, our children and how our view of them affects them.

In the interests of transparency, this article may or may not have been inspired by my binge watching Babies on Netflix.

Moving on….

Do we, as parents, subconsciously (because we are biased towards our children) think that they’re capable of less than they are and therefore inadvertently stop them from reaching their full potential?

In other words, are we sleeping on our kids?

And by “sleeping on” I’m using the Urban Dictionary definition here — are we failing to appreciate just how capable our children actually are and as a result, expecting too little of them?

Let me be clear, I’m not talking about the large aspirations and expectations we have for our children.

For instance the link between parental expectations and academic outcomes has been made clear through a variety of studies.

I’m thinking more along the lines of the seemingly small behaviours that we occasionally exhibit as parents that can (whether we know it or not) send the signal that we don’t think our kids are quite good enough.

Disclaimer

I feel like I need a disclaimer at this point: I don’t believe there’s one right way to raise children.

Also, while I’m a mum to one young adult and two teens, I’m by no means a parenting expert.

As I tell my kids, their whole lives are basically one big experiment.

I’m just endlessly curious about the things we do and how they impact the people who share our worlds.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way!

What behaviours am I referring to?

  1. Do as I say, not as I do

This is how myself and many of my generation with my cultural background were raised.

You were told what to do and you did it. No questions asked.

We felt the ripples of dissonance created by the gap between what our parents said and did.

As a result, we largely ignored anything they had to say and tried to find out by ourselves just how many ways we could subtly (or not so subtly) defy them. If you’re curious, the answer is a lot.

And yet somehow, we sometimes end up doing the same.

What if we’re teaching our kids that hypocrisy is okay if you’re in a position of authority?

What if we’re modelling that questioning, curiosity and pushing back are the hallmark of “bad” or “difficult” people?

2. Jumping to their “rescue”

“Here, let me help you with that”. Sounds harmless enough, right?

But what if that sends the signal that we don’t think they’re capable and that makes them start to doubt themselves?

What if by jumping in and helping without being asked we’re not allowing them the joy of success through hard work?

What if we’re not creating the space to let them learn how and when to ask for help?

3. Handing out certificates of attendance

Also known as “each participant gets a medal”.

I’m all for teaching our kids that sometimes, how you show up is as important as the result.

What I’m talking about here is the notion that just showing up is enough for you to be rewarded equally with someone who did more than just show up.

What if, by doing so, we’re creating a sense of entitlement and an expectation of reward simply by being?

What if, inadvertently, we’re communicating that there’s no satisfaction to be gained or pride to be found in the sense of a job well done?

What if we are signalling that mediocrity is the new aspirational standard?

4. Cushioning

That thing we do where we want to wrap our precious people up so that nothing and no-one ever hurts them.

“Don’t play in the rain, you’ll get sick!”

“Don’t walk around barefoot, you’ll catch worms!”

“Don’t date until you’re 30, you’ll get your heart broken!”

Basically, don’t do anything remotely risky.

I get it, we don’t want them to get hurt.

But what if, by doing this, we’re curbing their natural curiosity and ability to learn?

What if heartbreak is necessary to build resilience?

What if learning about risk and how to mitigate it is a more important life skill than learning how to avoid it altogether?

Closing thoughts

The idea of this article isn’t to shame anyone but to get us to look at the way we parent through a different lens.

To raise the possibility that maybe our kids don’t need us to act in the above ways.

To say: don’t sleep on your kids or have them fail to shine due to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Maybe as parents rather than being overly focused on their behaviour now, looking at creating life-ready adults could be our new mission.

And also to get ourselves to ask why we act in these ways.

What’s underneath it?

What, if anything, is causing it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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