Children are ready to talk about race earlier than when we are, research shows
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Children are ready to talk about race earlier than when we are, research shows

Children are ready to talk about race earlier than when we are, research shows

by Freya Lucas

September 17, 2020

While many adults believe children need to be around five years of age before talking with them about race, delays in having these important conversations could make it more difficult to change children’s misperceptions or racist beliefs, researchers in the US have found


The research, published recently by the American Psychological Association, shows that some infants are aware of race and some preschoolers may have already developed racist beliefs by the time the adults in their lives feel comfortable broaching what can be a complex topic. 


“Children are capable of thinking about all sorts of complex topics at a very young age. Even if adults don’t talk to kids about race, children will work to make sense of their world and will come up with their own ideas, which may be inaccurate or detrimental,” co-author Jessica Sullivan said. 


To conduct the research, more than 600 participants were asked the earliest age at which they would talk with children about race. They were also asked when they thought children first develop behaviors and cognitive abilities relating to race and other social factors. More than half of the participants were parents while 40 per cent were people of colour.


The participants believed conversations about race should begin near a child’s fifth birthday even though children begin to be aware of race when they are infants. 


Previous research has shown that 3-month-old babies prefer faces from certain racial groups, nine-month-olds use race to categorise faces, and three-year-old children in the U.S. associate some racial groups with negative traits. 


By the age of four years, children in the U.S. associate whiteness with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school.


Participants who believed children’s capacities to process race developed later also believed conversations about race should occur later. 

The researchers were surprised that the participants’ race did not affect the age at which they were willing to talk with children about race. The participants’ parental status, gender, education level, or experience with children also didn’t have any bearing on the findings.

To add depth to the findings, the researchers undertook an experiment in which participants learned about children’s developmental abilities relating to race, which resulted in those participants saying adults should start talking about it when children are four years old – approximately a year earlier than in the previous experiment.


Study co-author Leigh Wilton said that many parents use “well-meaning but ineffective strategies” to address racial issues, many of which “ignore the realities of racism”.


Some harmful approaches include a colourblind strategy (e.g., telling children “Skin colour doesn’t matter,” or “We’re all the same on the inside”) or refusing to discuss it (e.g., “It’s not polite to talk about that”).


The study did not explicitly make a recommendation in relation to when or how adults should talk with children about race, but Ms Wilton said this can begin early.


“Even if it’s a difficult topic, it’s important to talk with children about race, because it can be difficult to undo racial bias once it takes root,” she said. 


“Toddlers can’t do calculus, but that doesn’t mean we don’t teach them to count. You can have a conversation with a toddler about race that is meaningful to them on their level.”


Parents, especially white parents, need to become comfortable talking about race or “it will only get more difficult as their children get older,” Ms Wilton added.


“If we wait until a child is old enough to ask a tough question about the history of racial violence, then it will be that much harder to talk about if there haven’t been any meaningful discussions about race earlier in their lives.”

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