As appeared in U.S.News and World Report, March 1, 1999 (409 words)

Sticks and stones

A children's museum exhibit uses slurs to make its point. So what do kids get out of it?


The schoolyard is typically the place where kids are called cruel, hurtful names by their peers. But children who attend an antidiscrimination exhibit now touring the country will find themselves confronted with nasty invectives in the museum--where they'll hear words like chink, nigger, and white trash.

"Face to Face: Dealing With Prejudice and Discrimination" sparked fierce debate even before it first opened in 1995 at the Chicago Children's Museum. Scores of worried parents threatened to keep their children away. But the show also raised some vital questions: Is a children's museum an appropriate forum for such a sensitive topic? And perhaps more important, does encountering hateful language prevent discriminatory behavior, or does it promote it by teaching children words they may not otherwise know? Defense tactics. The exhibit uses the offensive language to teach children constructive responses to verbal abuse. At interactive video terminals, for example, museumgoers can ask other children on-screen how the discrimination makes them feel and choose responses to the words. Should you tell your parents? Confront the name caller? Or just ignore the incident altogether?

Child development specialists differ on whether using actual slurs reinforces lessons about prejudice. One of the nation's must widely used school curricula about discrimination, "Different and the Same," uses puppets of ducks and pandas to teach 6-to-8-year-olds about exclusion and stereotyping; the biggest insult is "mophead." "We thought it was important not to . . . identify any human racial group," says Sam Newbury, the show's project director. "We didn't want something a kid could use with another kid." But organizers of "Face to Face"--now on view at the Science Place in Dallas--say that this kind of approach is too abstract. "We'd like to think children are able to transfer duck experience to real life, but there's no evidence in this context that it's effective," says Kim Dell'Angela, a psychologist at the Loyola University Medical Center and project consultant for the exhibit. "We wanted to address the reality children deal with day to day."

Chicago museum officials say that they received no complaints after the exhibit's tempestuous opening. But they also note that "Face to Face" isn't as popular as other exhibits. It seems that kids would rather climb on a three-story schooner or build forts instead.