Adults often think children live in a color or gender blind world, but children begin to detect race during their first year of life and show signs of stereotyping by age three, says psychologist Rebecca Bigler, director of The University of Texas at Austin's Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab.
Bigler researches the formation and consequences of racial and gender stereotypes. She has interviewed thousands of children about their beliefs and attitudes. Her current study examines children's views about the U.S. presidency and race, gender and ethnicity. The subject matter is particularly relevant as the country prepares to elect its next president.
Dr. Rebecca Bigler
"With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama making serious bids for the White House in 2008, gender, race and politics are intersecting in a fascinating manner right now," Bigler says. "If either of them win, it will dramatically change the face of the American presidency and people's expectations of who sits in that office."
Interviewing children ages 5-12, Bigler found most kids believe the presidency should be open to men and women of all races and ethnicities. However, most children are aware of the homogeneity among U.S. presidents. Their explanations for the lack of diversity are startling.
One 7-year-old girl attributed white males' grip on the presidency to their personal abilities, saying, "Only men should be president because they are smarter than girls." A 10-year-old black child cited prejudice, explaining, "White people don't like black people." Others even claimed it is against the law for a black person or a woman to be president.
"It's encouraging that most kids think anyone should be allowed to be president," Bigler says. "But their answers as to why only white men have held that office reveal a fairly cynical view that is distressing given their age."
Clinton and Obama's highly publicized campaigns likely will reduce some children's belief that laws bar women and African Americans from assuming the presidency. But if neither of them wins, it may do little to affect children's beliefs, and may even cause some to attribute the loss to prejudice, Bigler says.
The Evolution of a Stereotype
So how does a 7-year-old develop a stereotypical attitude that boys are smarter than girls? Bigler has identified four circumstances that lead to stereotyping and prejudice.
Separating children based on gender can reinforce group differences and stereotypical views, Bigler says.
The first component is a child's ability to visibly detect differences. This explains why children tend to form stereotypes based on race and gender, but not religion or political affiliation.
"Children focus on what they can see," Bigler explains. "They're more likely to judge a person on their hair color or age, rather than their personal beliefs and opinions."
The second component is minority status. In one study, Bigler randomly separated a class into two groups. She gave the larger group blue T-shirts. She gave the second group, consisting of only two or three children, red T-shirts. The children in red T-shirts were far more likely to want to change groups than their peers who wore blue T-shirts.
"Children are acutely aware of, and uncomfortable about, being outnumbered, even if they are separated by something as meaningless as a T-shirt color," Bigler says. "And children in the minority group sought each other’s company, becoming close friends in almost every classroom."
The third component involves explicit labeling of different groups. For instance, a teacher's greeting of "Good morning, boys and girls," or an instruction to sit "boy, girl, boy, girl" reinforces group differences. According to Bigler, children attach particular importance to something when adults label it.
Finally, implicit segregation often leads to stereotypes and bias. In the T-shirt experiment, children in classes with only red or blue T-shirts demonstrated more stereotypical opinions about their peers than did children in integrated classrooms with both red and blue T-shirts.
Confronting the Problem
The pervasiveness of racism and sexism at an early age can be a daunting reality. For parents and educators unsure of how to prevent and correct prejudicial beliefs, Bigler has one simple piece of advice.
"Talk to your kids," Bigler counsels. "Children are perceptive and they notice racial and gender differences. If adults don't acknowledge and discuss that all the presidents have been white males, or poor neighborhoods are mostly black and Latino, children will form their own, probably prejudicial, explanations."
Adults wary of discussing such a delicate issue may try to influence children indirectly, by reading books or watching movies featuring counter-stereotypical characters. But Bigler says that's not enough.
"In one study, we read children a story about a female firefighter and then asked them to recall facts from the story," Bigler says. "The children who previously endorsed gender stereotypes did not accurately remember the story. They insisted it was a male firefighter. They only saw what they wanted or expected to see."
Bigler says direct conversations about prejudice and discrimination are far more fruitful. She cites a study in which she tested how learning about racism affected children's attitudes. Bigler found white children who received history lessons on discrimination against famous African Americans had significantly more positive attitudes toward African Americans than children who received lessons with no mention of racism.
Both white and black children who learned about racism were more likely to value racial fairness and to express greater satisfaction with the lesson.
"Racism can be a scary thing for adults to discuss with kids, but those lessons produce positive results," Bigler says. "The reality is that children live in a world where inequality does exist, so we can't pretend that it doesn't."