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Psychologist: What my granddaughter (and begonias) taught me about bias | COMMENTARY

“Let’s go outside, Mimi, and water the plants,” exhorted Fiona, my exuberant 4-year-old granddaughter, during a recent visit from Maryland to my New Jersey home.

Fiona and I filled our watering cans — mine a battered, green plastic jug with a cracked spout; hers, brightly-colored, pint-sized with a cheerful daisy attached to its lip. Out we went, I made a beeline for the newly planted begonias.

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“No, Mimi, what about the grass and that tree?” Fiona insisted, pointing to the mottle-barked Sycamore tree that graces a patch of earth between the sidewalk and the street, typically cared for by the town.

Through Fiona’s eyes, the begonias, the grass and the tree were all equal in nature’s esteem, all worthy of attention and care. At first, I felt irked, not wanting to deny my ruby red begonias preferential treatment. With indifference, I’d figured that the rain or the town would tend to the grass and the tree.

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Even so, I pivoted and joined in Fiona’s universal watering party. Thanks to Fiona, I saw how the grass and the Sycamore could assume their rightful place, on a par with the begonias (which, as nature would have it, were consumed by neighborhood deer several days after Fiona returned to Maryland).

I wondered: Do I genuinely embrace all of nature, all people, with an open mind and heart? That notion — or conceit — is an abiding value for me. But my time with Fiona prompted me to doubt myself if I couldn’t even apply my egalitarian beliefs to a tree, grass and flowers.

I paused, donned my psychologist’s cap and reflected on implicit bias: “the tendency for stereotype-confirming thoughts to pass spontaneously through our minds. It sets people up to overgeneralize, sometimes leading to discrimination even when people feel they are being fair,” according to Scientific American.

Studies on implicit bias show that sorting people, nature and objects into categories is a natural phenomenon. However, too often, dehumanizing prejudices are swept along from biases embedded early in life. Rarely do we unpack and question these delimiting perceptions. Instead, we may assume, quite wrongly, that some people are less worthy, less valuable or, worse, hateful and dangerous.

Another nature adventure with Fiona further challenged me.

“Let’s collect stones,” she proposed. She pulled out a brown paper lunch bag from a kitchen drawer, instructing me to write our names in blue ink: “Mimi and Fiona,” her name spelled with the final “a” capitalized.

We circled the block to pop multi-colored pebbles into our bag. Stopping by slabs of crumbling concrete, Fiona added broken bits to the bag.

“No, Fiona,” I discouraged her, “Those are ratty, dirty pieces, not true rocks or stones. Let’s not put them in the bag.”

“Why not?” she wondered, with her face scrunched up in puzzlement.

Why not, indeed? I looked down at Fiona’s wide questioning eyes and replied, “You’re absolutely right. All stones are precious. Let’s bring every one of them into the house.”

Fiona left me with the best gift imaginable: the whole world, wrapped in a newly found embrace that encompassed all colors, shapes, sizes, sounds and touches. All of nature. Every human being. All equal. All precious.

Let this global embrace define our nation going forward. This is my most fervent wish.

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Just before she jumped into her car seat for the return drive home, Fiona asked, “Mimi, Can I kiss and hug the Sycamore?” She’d learned to call the tree by its proper name.

“Of course you can,” I said. She stretched her little arms as far around the broad, majestic trunk as she could, squeezed hard, and planted a big smooch right on top of its bark. My heart filled with awe and with joy.

Patricia Steckler (PattiSteckler@gmail.com) has been a psychologist for 35 years and is a 2019 graduate of Johns Hopkins Science writing master’s degree program.

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