Unconscious biases and the conundrums of parenting

Charity begins at home, but what about unconscious biases? This is me showing courage enough to look inside and reflect

Vidhi Kumar
Director - People Capability 13 Sep 2020

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Unconscious biases and the conundrums of parenting

Charity begins at home, but what about unconscious biases? This is me showing courage enough to look inside and reflect

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself

- Kahlil Gibran

While there are so many dimensions to a parent-child relationship, the events of the past few months have made me notice the times we – as parents – encourage unconscious biases amongst our children, even in the most innocent of conversations. I often wonder if parenting in the current times is harder or easier than a few generations ago. It felt easy because growing up, our parents would simply “tell” us what to do and we’d listen. They were after all the ultimate authority figures in our life, perhaps after our teachers. However, as we have grown, and realised that sometimes in our quest to continue finding authority figures in our lives – in managers, partners or even friends, we end up in toxic relationships, and with tons of biases!

Exercising ‘authority’ over our children is a very delicate balance to be maintained. A lot of us overcome it over the years, but it always leaves unconscious biases deep within. Parents try to protect their children and give a decision-making framework to work within. Don’t talk to someone dressed up like that or be careful if you’re going to a neighbourhood dominated by a particular group. However, involving children in the ‘process’ of decision making is more important than involving them in the outcome. The outcome is for them to see and in most cases execute, but the process remains hidden, and that’s where a large number of dilemmas are handled, habits are formed and references created.

As a parent now, I don’t know how to help my ten-year-old come to understand himself better, and be independent - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. But I do know that ‘telling what to think’ is something I will stay away from. It’s a huge ask and it will conflict with my values sometimes. For example, a few days ago while watching a Netflix series, my son had a plethora of questions and opinions about homosexuals. Or when he reads about basic rights at school and asks about our domestic helps. I’ve been raised to ‘not think’ about these issues. To accept certain societal norms as facts but if I continue that tradition, I’m encouraging the legacy of biases and giving my son a limited mindset.

My parents are great people, educated and well meaning. They gave us exposure and freedom, but they probably didn’t have the courage to rise over their personal circumstances and think about giving us principles that last the test of time and place. Principles that could be applied everywhere and would still hold true. Like cardinal truths, these are guiding lights. Because parents aren’t around all the time, their job is only to equip their children with guiding principles and a checklist that helps them take quick effective decisions in a variety of situations. The decisions may not be perfect, but it’ll help them get past whatever they are facing - bullying, relationships, careers, biases and so many others.

And that doesn’t change whether I am an 18th century parent or raising a millennial. If I possess the courage and vulnerability to teach my child – not what to think and what opinions to form but how to think and how to discuss opinions, I have raised a human who can thrive in any era, in any culture. Then, when we get to corporate workplaces, we don’t have to be taught behaviours like “don’t judge” and “don’t be biased”. What a save from the unlearning and relearning to correct our frames of reference.

I have tried to correct mine, but I still keep questioning them and re-calibrating them with what is happening around me. Feels like I’ve got a breakthrough – no matter how small, but remind me to keep doing a rain check every now and then!