As children get older, they are more likely to be critical of parental expectations that reflect racist attitudes, and more likely to expect that parents may hold racial biases. In this new study, younger children stated that exclusion was wrong because someone would "feel sad;" in contrast, by 10th grade, students who said that exclusion was wrong used reasons such as the unfairness of discrimination and prejudicial attitudes.
The study also showed that students in heterogeneous schools — who had more cross-race friendships than students in homogeneous schools — were more likely to recognize that others used stereotypes and that this was wrong.
For example, one student said, "Some people might say that it's OK for her not to invite her to lunch because she's a different race and might not have the same interests but that's wrong. They should give her a chance and they might find out that they have a lot in common."
When asked about a sleepover situation in which parents felt uncomfortable inviting an African-American student over to their house, students also attributed parental discomfort to social and historical factors: "A long time ago things were different, and your parents might not know that you shouldn't treat someone different because of their race."
The study points to the fact that children and adolescents are aware of the existence of racial exclusion in everyday life, including who you invite to sit with you at the lunch table, who you invite to a sleepover party, and who you invite to a school dance.
Moreover, kids are aware that there are many pressures on them about these decisions, from parents who express concerns about it because it violates traditions and customs, to peers who find it to be different or unusual.
What should parents and educators do? Researchers suggest that it is important to discuss exclusion decisions with children and adolescents, to identify when such exclusion might be wrong, due to the reliance on stereotypes, and to emphasize the resulting discrimination or prejudicial attitudes that can result from such stereotyped-based exclusion.
Melanie Killen is professor of human development and associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland. David Crystal is associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Martin Ruck is associate professor of urban education at the Graduate Center, CUNY.