By Janice Van Buren, Ph.D.
A study in which(1) children's comments about race were recorded by pre-school, day-care and elementary workers and (2) interviews with parents of children three to twelve years old demonstrates children's progress through stages of race awareness that parallel their cognitive development.
Infants and Toddlers
- Learn "what is me" and "what is not me."
- Sensitive to the feelings of the adults around them.
- Begin to mimic adult behavior.
- Recognize and explore physical differences at 2 years.
- Learn names of colors, and begin to apply names to skin color.
- Express curiosity about differences.
3 to 5 year olds
- Notice differences among people.
- Can classify and sort objects based on color and size.
- Have problems grouping multiple objects.
- Confused about the names of racial groups.
- Confused about the actual color of their skin.
- Question why two people with different skin tones can belong to the same racial group.
- Express interest in wanting to know how people got their color, hair texture, and eye shape.
- Believe skin color and other physical traits can change like other parts of their body that grow and change.
- Begin to prefer one race by age four.
- have limited, distorted, and inconsistent thinking which makes them susceptible to stereotypes and forming pre-prejudices.
5 to 8 year olds
- Understands explanations about physical differences.
- Distinguishes between members of the same racial or cultural group.
- Develop social skills and become more group-oriented.
- Explore the culture of their friends.
- Understand the concept of fair and unfair.
- Understand racial constancy, i.e., knows that a person's skin color is permanent- will not wash off or change.
- Can think about multiple attributes at one time.
- Understand how one person can be a member of several different groups, i.e., a person can be part of a family, a classroom, a culture, and a race.
- Understand feelings of shame and pride.
- Recognizes racism against their own group.
- Can empathize and are interested in learning about the world.
- Place value judgments on similarities and differences: rank the things in their world from "best" to "worst," like to win and hate to lose, choose best friends, get left out of games and clubs, and exclude others-sometimes because of race, ethnicity, and religion.
- Think about social issues, remain flexible in their beliefs.
- Racial attitudes start to grow more rigid.
- Are very impressionable, this phase can be a turbulent time.
Nine to 12 year olds
- Develop a deeper understanding of racism in its historical and social/institutional dimensions, and on a personal level.
- Understand the interaction between individuality and group membership.
- Understand that we have both similar and different needs with others.
- Can challenge earlier inaccurate ideas about race and behaviors.
- Ask some of the same questions as younger children.
- Understand more complex answers due to expanding minds and expanding experience.
- Understand history and social context of race.
- Recognize and address the question "Who am I?"