"If someone gave you food to eat that you've never tried, and you still don't try it, that's prejudice." -- George Denby, Petworth Elementary School.
Children do say the darndest things, and sometimes the things they say to each other are also the cruelest. Most adults, when faced with the word "prejudice," tend to think in racial terms. Children are more simplistic. To some, being on the receiving end of name-calling and teasing because they are fat or because they stutter is as much a prejudicial problem.
"Prejudice will always be around in some form," says clinical child psychologist Dr. Eugene H. Ridberg of Kensington, Md.
Children who resort to teasing and name-calling are usually trying to make themselves feel better, he says. They're trying to stuff what he calls their "I'm Okay Box."
"Prejudice of all forms," he says, "is related to the constant monitoring of the strengths and weaknesses of others." Comparing one another is a process of growth, he says, and it goes on from generation to generation. "The only thing that changes are the words -- the vocabulary."
Dr. Carlotta Miles, a Washington psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist, agrees.
"Kids are very peer-oriented, and they start using prejudice as a defense. It's not a natural thing; it's acquired. It's curiosity and observation at first," she says, and what happens from there depends on what parents and teachers do about it.
Eleven-year-olds from three elementary schools, West Rockville in Montgomery County and Petworth and Hearst in the District, were asked to define prejudice and how they deal with it.
"Some kids say stuff like fatty," says Michelle Watts of West Rockville, "and it sort of hurts my feelings. I know I'm overweight, but it's a matter of personality. I think I'm pretty nice."
Michael Casey, also of West Rockville, says he's been called names because he wears glasses. "Or they'll call me 'professor.'"
But Patricia Harvey of Hearst says she's experienced harsher treatment. "A lot of people call me nigger or monkey," she says, "and I feel like tearing them apart."
Her problem, she says, was different when she first entered Hearst. Because her skin is light, "the kids thought I was white." She says she convinced her fellow classmates that she is black by having her hair corn-rowed and wearing a T-shirt that says "Black comes in all colors."
Most upsetting to Rus Quinn, who is Cambodian, is being teased and referred to as Chinese. "I'm not even from China," he says.
That sort of thing is "blind prejudice," says fellow classmate Scott Oswald. "You don't even know who you hate."
"We're supposed to put labels on jars, not people," says Harvey.
For Jacqueline Greene of Petworth Elmentary the most frightening encounter with prejudice was at a Washington-area amusement park.
White children on one of the rides, she says, made faces at her and said, "We don't want you around because you're black."
"I felt a little bit scared," she says, "because they were bigger than me . . . Most of the time I say, 'Leave me alone.'"
Michelle Watts says she talks things over with her mother or her teacher, but her classmate Kyong Eye says she pretends she's doing something else when kids tease her. Going to the teacher "is just tattling," she says.
"Teachers shouldn't fight your battles," says Michael Casey. "If I'm outside and people start calling me names I act like I'm not listening. If you tell them not to do it, they'll stop."
"Your teachers might tell you what to do, but it might not help the problem," says Mike Adams. "You're usually the one who'll have to stay in (the classroom) and you can't stay in all your life. It's easier to ignore them (the name-callers)."
"That's how fights start," says Cynthia McCoo of Petworth.
But George Denby says his reaction would depend on "how big the other kid is, but I usually ignore it."
"There is no group way to handle it," says psychologist Ridberg, who is also director of psychology at the Kingsbury Center for handicapped children. Not dealing with the problem, he says, is often reinforced by parents and teachers who encourage children to "set it aside."
If a child is on the giving end, he says, "a parent could tell the child, 'I don't approve of your trying to feel better about yourself by putting someone else down.'" Ridberg believes teachers today are more sensitive, but "kids are kids.
"If kids have to get angry and let it out, it's better verbally. Often statements of prejudice don't have the same impact to kids as to adults."
"Kids think simplistically," says psychiatrist Miles. "Kids don't think like adults. When they take a prejudiced stand it's because of how they've been treated."
Because the first experiences of prejudice occur in school, Miles believes preparation should begin at the nursery-school level.
"Start out by telling them, 'Not everyone in the world is going to love you like your parents do,'" she says. "That way, when they're walking down the street and someone grumbles something (derogatory), they will be prepared.
But when it involves racial prejudice, she says, it has to be dealt with "actively, forcefully, in a way you can maintain your self-respect."
"To a degree, it is improving," Miles says. "There is a lot more interest in each other. But prejudice is around for everybody."