In an experiment, a Caucasian girl named Morgan was shown pictures of two girls - one white and one black.
When asked who was smarter, Morgan pointed to the white girl. She was then shown a picture of a white and a black boy and was asked who threw garbage on the floor. She then pointed to the black boy (Stern-LaRosa and Bettman 2000).
Morgan is only three years old.
The experiment shows how early prejudice can affect people's perceptions, and the various negative ways in which they are manifested.
Morgan, however, is far from a lost cause. Experts agree that children often look to adults for guidance, and that there are many strategies to help children like Morgan work through their attitudes towards difference.
Definitions of prejudice
Studies of prejudice and discrimination usually center on a group of common ideas. Most experts begin with stereotypes, which are "cognitive shortcuts" regarding the qualities of individuals based solely on their membership in a specific group. An individual can then develop prejudice, which is composed of attitudes towards other people based on these stereotypes. These prejudicial attitudes can be positive or negative (Waller 2000).
Finally, these prejudicial attitudes can be manifested in discrimination, which are positive or negative behaviors towards people who belong to groups that are perceived as different (Waller 2000).
Parents or caregivers, however, need to explain these ideas in terms that children can understand. For example, a parent or teacher can say that prejudice is a feeling, when "we feel and think about people...in an unfair way" (Stern LaRose and Bettman, 2000, p. 156).
Morgan, for example, already has stereotypes regarding African-American children. She already thinks, for example, that the white girl is smarter and that the black boy is automatically guilty of littering. In a reverse stereotyping, a young black boy named Jason was shown a picture of a black and a white boy in playing chess. Jason believed that the black boy would lose because "he doesn't want to win" (Stern-LaRosa and Bettman, 2000, p. 156).
Discrimination, on the other hand, happens when people act on these prejudices. Left unchecked, for example, Morgan may eventually refuse to play with other black girls. Jason could internalize the idea that he could never excel in an intellectual activity such as chess. Given the influence of the media, Jason would have likely answered differently is shown a picture of two boys playing basketball.
Development of prejudice
Parents often like to think that their kids are color-blind. They are thus surprised when kids as young as Morgan and Jason already show an awareness of differences based on race.
Child development experts believe, however, that the early awareness of difference is natural and not necessarily a bad thing. When placed together in a crib, for example, a quiet baby girl and a calm baby boy exhibit a fascination with one another. They would smile and make high-pitched sounds when they see each other. In the crib, they would lie on their tummies and look at each other, arch their backs and heads together in a happy game (Stern LaRose and Bettman, 2000, p. 16-17).
The babies are naturally inquisitive and are drawn to others with opposite but complementary traits. However, it is important to note that their ideas of difference are natural, rather than social constructs. While babies understand differences based on physical appearances such as gender, skin color or hair texture, they have yet to associate positive or negative stereotypes with these traits.
When Jason and Morgan grow to toddlerhood, their awareness of these differences intensifies. When given a choice of dolls, for instance, a child will often choose dolls of his or her color. Again, these attitudes do not necessarily show prejudice. Rather, they may simply reflect an ability to distinguish between similarities and differences.
From ages three to five, children wonder about the reasons behind their differences. A child may ask questions like "Why is my skin white and why is Anna's skin brown" or "Why does Jill sit when she pees?" Though they see differences, however, they tend to "see things literally" and do not understand the cultural meanings of these labels (Stern LaRose and Bettman, 2000, p. 23).
This is where things can get tricky. Beginning around age five, kids begin to develop as social beings. They begin to build their group and ethnic identities. This is also the age when feelings of difference can be manifested. In Morgan's case, this can be manifested as prejudice towards non-white kids. In Jason's case, this can be seen as an internalized self-hate.
Forms of difference
As they develop into social beings, children exhibit a strong desire to belong to distinct groups. This sense of belonging is often dependent on a child's earliest ideas of sameness and difference. Thus, a desire to play with a doll of the same race gives way to a desire to belong to a group that the child thinks has his or her same traits.
In North America, one of the earliest identifiable traits is race and ethnicity. Thus, studies show that children in kindergarten and elementary school exhibit prejudicial attitudes. Regardless of a child's race, prejudice often took the form of favorable attitudes towards Caucasians and unfavorable attitudes towards Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans. These attitudes did not decline as the children grew older. However, counter-bias in the form of unfavorable attitudes towards white people also increased (Doyle et al., 1995).
In addition to race and ethnicity, children learn to recognize and develope stereotypes regarding other forms of difference as well. A Canadian study of 254 children from kindergarten to sixth grade showed that children formed degrees of bias based on gender. Even among children of the same race, kids distinguished between ethnicity (French- versus English-speaking children). Children were also acutely aware of differences based on body type, particularly against children who were overweight (Powlishta et al., 1994).
First experience with prejudice
For most people, the first experience with prejudice occurs from ages six to eight, when children enter kindergarten or first grade. These experiences include from isolation, exclusion from activities, being called hurtful names or even being threatened and attacked.
A young white girl recalls being called a "honky." A Native American boy narrates being called a "savage." When he tried to make friends with the kids who teased him, he reports being threatened with a beating. Some children report using the strategies against their tormentors.
After being called a "chink," a Hmong boy fired back by calling his teasers "niggers." The Hmong boy later says that he "didn't mean it...I just wanted them to get away from me" (Stern-LaRosa and Bettman, 2000, p. 31).
One sixth-grader from Minneapolis tells of being called names and left out of groups since she was in kindergarten. The girl believes that her mixed race heritage - her father is white while her mother is black - compounds her difficulty in making friends. She is alternately called names like "nigger" or "whitey." In describing her sense of isolation, she says "It hurts so much you just want to rip all your skin off and jump into a new one...You wish you were never that color and never born sometimes" (Stern-LaRosa and Bettman, 2000, p. 31).
Based on these early experiences, children often conclude that it was simply not possible to combat the prejudice that they have encountered. Many express the belief that "it's just easier to relate to people of your own race" (Stern-LaRosa and Bettman, 2000, p. 32).
Fortunately, this perception is wrong. It is possible to combat the development of prejudice. There are many ways channel a child's awareness of difference into positive rather than negative attitudes.
The first step is to start early, since even babies already show an awareness of rudimentary differences like gender and race. Any parent knows that one of a two-year-old's favorite activities to is ask "why." Thus, the parent's or caregiver's task is to provide honest and direct answers.
For example, when a toddler may ask a question like "Why does Marta sound funny when she talks?" Rather than reinforcing that Marta sounds "funny" and instructing the toddler to ignore the accent, the toddler's parent could use this as a chance to provide guidance. A better response, could go: " There is a reason why Marta sounds different to you. That's because people who learn another language first often say words different from people who learn English first. Marta learned Spanish before she learned English. Don't you think it's great to speak two languages? If you can't understand Marta at first, ask her to say it again. Maybe you can even ask her to teach you a few words in Spanish."
As the above example shows, a toddler picks up that speaking with an accent is not a negative ("funny") trait. Rather, it could be positive ("fun"). Furthermore, learning a few words in Spanish could also be the basis for recognizing connections and forming friendships.…