How Do Kids Understand Race and Identity?
Learning how young children comprehend the concept of race and identity is crucial to guiding their understanding of it.
This story is part of From The Start: A Parent’s Guide to Talking About Racial Bias, a series created in partnership with Johnson’s®, Aveeno® Baby, and Desitin®. We’re here to help parents tackle the difficult task of talking to their kids about race. With a topic this big, it can be hard to even know where to start — so we’ve teamed up with experts who have real answers to parents’ questions.
For parents, navigating the topic of race and racism with little kids can feel overwhelming. Can children even understand the concepts of race and identity? And if so, how early can they comprehend them, and to what extent? According to child development experts, children as young as 2 can exhibit racial discrimination — but as they get older, they’re also capable of understanding topics like privilege and fairness.
Starting in infancy, babies can differentiate facial features, skin color, and hair color and can even display preference for one person over another due to their appearance. This stems from Attachment Theory: Babies feel safest around people who are like them — so their caretakers are their “in group.”
“Once vision is established, infants can distinguish differences in physical features,” says Ana Marcelo, a Child Development Psychologist and Professor at Clark University. “They can start differentiating and developing preferences for people they recognize, so it’s not far-fetched to say they can also discriminate against people.”
According to Rashelle Chase, a content architect for KinderCare’s education team and a member of the organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion caucus, babies can also pick up on unspoken cues that their caretakers unknowingly project about race.
For example, if you’re on a walk with your 9-month-old and you always cross to the other side of the street when you see a person of color, your child could internalize that pattern, and assume that specific type of person is scary and should be avoided.
By 2 or 3 years old, Chase says, children are increasingly able to absorb some of the prevailing stereotypes that exist in society and show discomfort or even fear toward people with different skin color, language, or physical ability — which only increases as kids get older.
According to Mary Garvey, director of Innovation and Inclusion at the Institute for Child Success, some of this is learned from parental behavior. But kids are also more likely to notice differences in other people when they start learning about related topics, like colors and family structure. (That’s why your toddler might awkwardly point out another person’s body size or hair texture at the grocery store.)
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pointing out these things in a negative way,” says Garvey. “But as toddlers, they’re already aware of differences they see in other people.”
“Children are not immune,” notes Dr. Y. Joy Harris-Smith, a New York Special Education Teacher, lecturer, and co-author of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (And Ourselves!) Embrace Differences. “They’re not immune to either being the one who demonstrates racism or perhaps receiving racist action. They may not have the language for it, but they are not immune.”
Preschool, or around age 4 or 5, is usually when kids start to form labels around other people. That’s because, per Chase, they’re seeking to make sense of the world and categorize people.
Psychology researchers confirmed this in the famous doll study in the 1940s. The research found that white children ages 3 to 7-years-old generally preferred white dolls and assigned positive characteristics to them — and that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem. (The next decade, the research findings were used to make segregation illegal in the hallmark Brown v. Board of Education case.) More recent studies continue to demonstrate that kids as young as 3 both categorize people and develop biases and preferences based on race.
As one might expect, 5-year-olds are even more capable of making more explicit judgments about other people. Chase says kindergarten-aged kids are able to start making their own judgments about who in society has high status and who doesn’t. For instance, if all the teachers in a school are white and all the janitors and cooks are people of color, kids may develop the understanding that POC work in service roles and white people have more power.
“But even in that age group, kids can start to understand what’s fair and who has privilege, and to put language behind what they see and even call out injustice,” she says.
This age group’s bias toward other races or ethnicities can also be more direct toward their peers. Garvey, for example, says her organization’s surveys have found that non-white kids experience begin to practice racial stereotyping by their classmates in early elementary school. And a study from 2011 found that 5-year-olds tend to think members of their “in group” are kinder and less likely to steal, which could affect who they interact and become friends with — and who they steer clear from.
Of course, how kids understand race has a lot to do with their brain development. But brain development isn’t a purely biological process. Nurture, which psychologists call “socialization,” also plays a part in how kids see the world throughout their lives. For example, if a parent or caregiver takes a “we don’t see color” perspective and refuses to address race, then a child might be more likely to display discrimination toward people who appear different. The same can be true if a kid doesn’t grow up in a diverse area — simply being around more diverse people can prompt positive conversations about race, even between parents and young kids.
But taking the time to open up about issues of race and identity — especially emphasizing the positive aspects of other cultures — can make a big difference in how your kids see people who are different from them. According to Garvey, research at the Institute for Child Success found that when parents have these types of conversations about race with their children, the children are more likely to have more positive thoughts about different types of people.
But taking the time to open up about issues of race and identity — especially emphasizing the positive aspects of other cultures — can make a big difference in how your kids see people who are different from them. According to Garvey, research at the Institute for Child Success found that when parents regularly have these types of conversations about race and identity, their kids are more likely to have more positive thoughts about different types of people.
As scary as it may be that young kids can experience or perpetuate biases and stereotypes, the good news is they can also understand concepts of fairness — so parents have an opportunity to explain why racism isn’t okay, and teach them how to act with equity and compassion.
“When we’re intentional about having conversations about biases and differences,” says Chase, “we can help our kids understand how these biases are unfair and impact people.”
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