Exploring the source of prejudice in children

by Jackie Klopp

Many of us view prejudice as one of the ugly "facts of life" that our children may learn or face in this world as they grow older. Assuming children are innocents, few of us then ask more pointed questions about when and how children acquire negative attitudes about others.

McGill psychologist Frances Aboud has been asking those questions, to discover at what age children recognize different ethnic groups and develop thoughts and attitudes about them. She is also trying to learn what factors, either in the social environment or in a child's cognitive development, lead to the acquisition of prejudice and what methods help to overcome it.

Some of Aboud's answers, based on work with children in Montreal schools over the years, are startling. We often assume that children pick up the negative attitudes of their parents--that as they approach adulthood, children move gradually from innocence to prejudice. In contrast, her results suggest children are prejudiced at ages as young as five.

"It's very clear that young children do notice who is black, who is white, who has straight hair and so on. They are not colour blind," Aboud says. "They just don't comment on it. They don't use racial slurs at five years-they don't have the verbal fluency-but that doesn't mean they don't have attitudes."

When Aboud came to do graduate work at McGill, she was already intrigued by questions of how people deal with cultural diversity. In 1975, after spending time at the Cross-Cultural Research Center in Bellingham, Washington, Aboud returned to join the McGill faculty. Her research agenda: to look at "stereotypes and people's attitudes, their desire to meet and befriend people of different ethnic groups."

Probing these attitudes, Aboud and her longtime co-researcher, Anna Beth Doyle of Concordia University, moved farther and farther down the age scale with their questions, until they began to examine tots as young as three years old.

The pair discovered an unexpected pattern. While five-year-olds seem to have prejudiced attitudes, by the time they are eight or nine, these attitudes tend to decline and children start to look at individual characteristics of people rather than stereotyping them. Children's susceptibility towards prejudice thus seems to be linked to cognitive development and not just socialization or imitation of parents' attitudes. In fact, according to Aboud and Doyle, in this age group (five to eight years) when abilities to think about people change so rapidly, there appears to be no strong evidence that children are influenced by the negative attitudes of parents or peers.

A recent study the pair conducted with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada reinforced this finding. Working with children between eight and 11 years of age, Aboud and Doyle tested for prejudice level. They then paired children who were friends but had different levels of prejudice and gave them a task. This task involved assigning positive or negative characteristics to blacks, Chinese or whites. Conversation between the pairs was recorded and analyzed.

More tolerant children challenged their less tolerant partners and were much less likely to change their attitudes than the prejudiced children. Intriguingly, high-prejudice children did show declines in prejudice after the conversations.

"This research suggests that tolerant kids are not going to pick up prejudiced habits by interacting with prejudiced kids," says Aboud. In fact, sparking conversations between prejudiced children and a more tolerant peer might be an effective way to reduce prejudice levels.

Reducing prejudice is, ultimately, Aboud's aim. Her work with Doyle on understanding the patterns in children's propensities for prejudice has led to some concrete ideas for educators. Researchers at the University of British Columbia took Aboud and Doyle's suggestions and developed an educational unit for fifth graders.

The focus of the program, says Aboud, is a set of activities "which get children to pay attention to individuals. Rather than slotting people based on stereotypes, it's getting them to say 'I'll find out more about that person to see what they're really like.'"

Aboud continues to evaluate the program with great interest. "The biggest differences are with the children who start off being prejudiced. They do show changes in attitudes. I don't know if those things translate very quickly into friend relationships. That might take a little bit longer, but in terms of their attention to individual differences-saying, for example, that two blacks are different from one another just as two whites are different from one another and attributing more positive qualities to blacks and more balanced qualities to whites--that seems to improve as a result of the program." Aboud would like to see the program used widely in elementary schools.

She also debunks the myth that a multicultural setting can reduce prejudice. "In fact, people have shown sometimes that stereotypes are worsened, attitudes are worsened, as a result of contact. It's not just contact but contact with the personal qualities of an individual, developing trust in them. If you're going to talk about contact, it's high-quality friendship that does it."

There is much that is not yet understood and Aboud has a number of future projects in mind. "I would like to look a little bit more at the early years--three, four, five--to see what really goes on when children are unprejudiced and acquire prejudice. If we understand what goes on there, perhaps we can intervene in a better way. There is also a problem of segregation that starts at about 12 years of age. It's a big problem in the States and may be a big problem here, too. Even though we put children together in the same school, they segregate themselves. What's going on there? It's some kind of peer culture that does it. I want to look more into that."

Jackie Klopp, a physics graduate currently pursuing a PhD in political science, is a science-writing intern for the Reporter.