How Kids Learn Prejudices, Stereotypes
How Kids Learn Prejudices, Stereotypes
How do children respond to stereotypes about race, religion and gender? A child-development expert looks at contradictions in kids’ behavior.
WEB EXCLUSIVE By Anna Kuchment
Newsweek Updated: 1:05 p.m. ET Feb. 26, 2007
Feb. 26, 2007 – Child-development experts have spent years studying geekdom: what it is that makes one child more likely to be rejected by another. But University of Maryland professor Melanie Killen took a different approach. Instead of focusing on social deficits, Killen, associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture, focused on another category of rejectionwhen children are excluded because of gender, race or ethnicity rather than their behavior. Killen calls it “group membership.” Her study, “Children’s Social and Moral Reasoning About Exclusion,” published in this month’s issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, shows that kids become aware of group membership from at least the time they’re in preschool. But, while kids universally feel that it’s unfair to reject someone based exclusively on their gender, race or religion, there are some situations in which they do so anyway.
Killen spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Anna Kuchment about why that’s the case. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why are we so fascinated with the question of exclusion and inclusion?
Melanie Killen: As adults, we all have to navigate social groups. We’re in hundreds of groups throughout our lives: at work, in higher education, in community organizations. Every time you join a group there are entry ritualsyou have to apply, you have to know the group’s prior history.
Understanding these nuances is a key to social and professional success.
Why did you decide to focus on group discrimination, rather than on “Mean Girls”-style popularity contests and bullying?
Our approach is: yeah, there are times when kids are rejected because they’re not good at social skills, but there’s a whole other dimension we need to look at, and that’s intergroup relationswhen kids exclude others not because of social skills but because they’re a girl or a Muslim. As adults, we don’t think about that so much in children. That’s part of why adults have wars and why countries don’t get along, but it’s gotta start somewhere. We wanted to know: how early does it start and what categories do kids use to reject each other?
And what did you find?
That kids become aware of gender first. Young kids [preschoolers] understand that people have different skin colors, but they don’t use that to classify people by activities or interests. If you asked them, “What do white kids like?” they wouldn’t be able to tell you. Stereotypes about race and ethnicity come in during elementary school. As kids get older, they’re aware of group dynamics, and they pick up the stereotypes of the culture and start using those as reasons for exclusion. They’ll say, “It’s OK not to let him in the club because he likes different things.” Adolescents start to become very aware of group function and what makes kids want to hang out together. Those reasons start to be more influenced by stereotypes.
Tell me about some of the discussions you had with preschoolers.
We’d tell them a vignette or scenario. “Girls are playing with dolls and a boy wants to play with them, but the girls say ‘no.’ Is that all right?” What we found is, if you asked them that question, a majority of kids say it’s not all right. They’ll say, “That wouldn’t be right because he’ll feel sad.” But if you make the situation more complex and say, “A group of girls is playing with dolls and there’s only room for one more person. Would you take the boy or the girl?” Then they’ll say, “Well, maybe the girl, because she knows about dolls.”
How were those different from the conversations you had with high-schoolers?
The similarities were that young kids, just like adolescents, have stereotypes about others and also recognize the unfairness of excluding someone just based on those stereotypes. But what’s very different is that adolescents are much more sensitive to group dynamics and group function in both a positive and a negative way. In a positive sense, they understand that for a group to work well there has to be a shared interest. The negative side is that they might still equate shared interest with shared race and ethnicity.
Your research gets at the larger question of: is it ever OK to exclude? Is that something you’ve thought about?
What we say is that exclusion is not the same as other transgressions, like hitting someone for no reason or denying someone resources for no reason.
Those are moral transgressions. But exclusion is different because there are plenty of times in society where exclusion is OK. A typical example is
baseballif you’re not good at baseball, you’re excluded.
But exclusion based on group membership is different. What we find is that, universally, if you really pose it to them in terms of exclusion based
solely on group membership and no other association like competence, skill or merit, it seems that our interviewees would view that as unfair and
wrong. There seems to be a universal feeling that exclusion based solely on group membership is unfair if you don’t know anything else about that
person’s talent and ability. There is this sense of fairness that seems to be universal.
Is this sense inborn?
Our research suggests it’s not strictly innate and not strictly learned, but it’s an interaction. Infants come into the world with a social predisposition. They like faces, they like people, they love to look at kids. And we think that’s part of the basis for some kind of moral orientation toward fairness and equality and that really does come out of peer interaction. They negotiate and develop a concept of equality.
What can be done to prevent this type of exclusion?
Intervention doesn’t have to teach them that it’s wrong to do this. They already understand that. But what we have to work on is helping them see
when a situation involves exclusion based on group membership, because sometimes they get confused. They think they’re making a decision that’s
fair, but it’s really based on stereotypes. For example, if you ask kids about a music club that excludes kids based on race, the younger kids will say it’s wrong. But as you get older they’ll say if you don’t like the same music it’s OK. But then that’s based on stereotype. Kids understand fairness but what they don’t get is when using a stereotype might interfere with that.
What can parents do?
We think schools and teachers and parents should do much more to talk to all kids about how groups form, about exclusion and what makes it wrong and when you might be being biased in a situation. A lot of the exclusion that’s based on race and gender comes from kids in the majority who are just not aware of the experiences that kids who are minorities have.
We also think it’s important for parents and teachers to promote diversity in friendships and playgroups early on. When their kids turn 5, parents often start having playdates only with girls or only with boys. They move into perpetuating a segregated culture. And why is segregating by gender so different than segregating by ethnicity?
Is there an evolutionary basis to exclusion based on groups?
I don’t think there is in quite the way it’s portrayed. There’s a biological tendency for primates and humans to form groups, but just because you like your group doesn’t mean you dislike or go against the out-group. With primates and humans, there’s a social predisposition toward fairness.
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