Are children aware of race? If so, do they treat people of their own and other races differently?
These are questions that have come to the forefront of the national media in recent times, as when CNN’s Anderson Cooper commissioned a special study for his show. To begin to assess whether young children in modern America show a basic preference toward people depending on race, Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University carried out a series of studies with European-American children.
In a study with infants, babies encountered both a European-American female and an African-American female who offered a toy. The researchers were interested in whether babies would be more likely to accept the toy from the European-American female. If so, the study could be taken as evidence that, by the time they are 10 months of age, infants have come to prefer their own racial group. However, this was not the case; the infants were equally likely to choose from the European-American female as they were from the African-American female.
In their next study, the researchers asked 2-and-a-half-year-olds to give a present to either of the same two individuals as in the study with 10-month-olds. The results showed that, yet again, children’s preferences did not depend on the race of the individual. However, the story with the 5-year-olds was very different: More than 90% of the children tested reported that they would prefer to be friends with the European-American individual.
While more research is needed with different groups of children, Kinzler and Spelke write that these findings “provide a note of optimism that later race-based social preferences may not be a predetermined outcome.”
Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.