At such a young age, many parents believe that their children do not notice race. The reality though is that even three-month-old children are already able to display a visual preference for their own race over other race faces. This suggests that preference for one's own race develops over the first 3 months of life and is likely influenced by the racial exposure young children experience (Kelly et al., 2005). This awareness along with the “immature cognitive structures of preschoolers” makes children ages 0-3 “rife for stereotyping” (Winkler, 2009). Children’s awareness of race continues to develop across early childhood. By 30 months, children already express in-group biases -- that is, they prefer to play with those from their own racial group or believe that people from their own racial group hold more favorable traits as compared with people from other racial groups (Winkler, 2009). Because young children lack the cognitive skills to classify people according to multiple dimensions (e.g., by gender and by race), they tend to believe that people who are the same in one dimension (e.g., skin color) are the same in other dimensions as well (e.g., cultural practices; Winkler, 2009). Without explicit conversations about similarities and differences among racial groups, , young children begin to assume that these coexisting dimensions are representations of rules or norms that must be enforced (for example, if a child goes to the doctor and only sees White doctors, they begin to make the false connection that only White people can be doctors) (Winkler, 2009). Parents must remember that it is never too early to start talking to your child about race. Explicit conversations and exposure to racially diverse individuals (even through children’s media) can help you interrupt the development of racial stereotypes.
Race to children of this age is largely physical, and represented heavily by the color of someone’s skin and other more visible, apparent traits (like hairstyle, facial features, etc). Kids tend to think of themselves first, and may have difficulty comprehending perspectives other than their own (egocentrism). For this reason, they tend to make classifications about other people based on whether they are similar to or different from themselves (Quintana, 2008). Additionally, three-to-five-year-old children are still developing cognitively—that is, they struggle to categorize people by more than one dimension at once (e.g., as both Black and an astrophysicist), leading to an assumption that people alike in one dimension (like skin color) are alike in other dimensions as well (ability, intelligence, etc), leading to an inclination towards stereotyping (Katz & Kofkin, 1997; Patterson & Bigler 2006). As early as 3-5 years old, children notice and internalize the norms of the society around them—not just those within the home. These norms create a sort of puzzle for young children; they observe the world around them and can notice things like who works and lives where. This leads them to assume there is a meaningful difference between these groups (Aboud, 2008; Bigler & Liben, 2007). Differences like these contribute to how children begin to understand the “desirability” of belonging to one racial group over another—that is, they view higher-status groups as more desirable. By 3 years old, both Black and White children display a preference towards White playmates, likely due to their internalization of the “desirability” of whiteness due to its status and privilege (Katz & Kofkin, 1997).
Talking about race at this age helps children to draw more nuanced conclusions about race and racism than they would have been able to draw on their own. It’s important to help encourage this cognitive, social, and racial development early in life. Conversations -- not only exposure to difference --that encourage things like critical thinking, empathy, and celebration of difference are important. Families can also engage with other cultures through media (books and movies), food, or community, and teach children the power of their words and actions. When children at this age notice or question a difference, explain the origins of these differences. For example, acknowledge melanin as a source of physical difference or systemic racism as the reason for differences in things like housing or employment; for example, people of color experience less opportunity or mobility than White people. Most importantly, remember that this is not something your child can learn all at once. Rather than approaching these topics as one massive conversation, think of it as a series—building up your child’s understanding of race one conversation at a time.
By 7 years old, children are able to start connecting societal messages to different groups. For example, this is when children begin generalizing characteristics or ideas (e.g., who is smart or who is lazy) to all members of certain racial groups. The developmental period of late childhood is an especially critical time for racial socialization, as children are receiving messages about race from their parents but also from the world around them. Many societal messages ascribe stereotypes to different races (e.g. Asian people are inherently smart). It’s up to parents and teachers to challenge these stereotypes, provide context for them, and balance them with accurate and diverse representations of multiple racial groups.
When White parents notice their kids unintentionally generalizing or repeating harmful stereotypes, they often shut down the conversation or shush their child, afraid to be perceived as bigoted or ignorant. However, shutting down conversations surrounding race actually pushes children away from engaging with the topic as a whole and allows for society alone to inform children’s ideas about race. We see this phenomenon especially by age 10, when children begin identifying more with their racial group membership and internalizing social norms (e.g. I’m white so I shouldn’t pay attention to race). As a result, children feel more comfortable around members of their own race and avoid going outside of that comfort zone. For example, compared with younger children, 10 and 11-year-olds avoid mentioning race even in scenarios where it is appropriate to do so, potentially reflecting their adherence to the social norm that talking about race is taboo (Apfelbaum et al., 2008).
From ages 7-12, providing children with resources to explore multiple perspectives, practice their empathy skills, and learn more about their own and other racial groups can help to combat the endorsement of stereotypes and the notion that race is taboo.