This blog was contributed by Pauline Slot
The recent police brutality against a male of color in the United States faces us with the facts again. Issues of racism and discrimination are present in everyday situations. How does this affect children with diverse backgrounds growing up in current society? And what are the lessons for ECEC? But let’s start at the basis: why do people discriminate?
Theoretical foundation of discrimination
The human mind and brain are built to categorize, and even infants are able to differentiate between sounds, images, contours and colors and can group people according to these characteristics. This helps people to understand the world around them and how to respond to the social cues of their environment. However, when attributing social meaning and valence based on this grouping and acting upon them in negative ways, discrimination enters into the equation.
In addition, discrimination includes issues of power in which socially more powerful individuals or groups overtly or covertly harm a less socially powerful person, which is the case in police brutality. This example illustrates how individually experienced discrimination turns into perceived discrimination at the societal level. Both can be detrimental for child outcomes.
Young children’s experiences with discrimination
There is evidence that children as young as three years of age experience racial prejudice, as evidenced with the famous doll studies in the 1940’ and 1950’ which has been replicated many times since. These tests showed that when given a choice all children preferred to play with White dolls, regardless of their own skin color. Also, they attributed more positive features to White dolls: they were pretty, nice or smart. The opposite was true for Black dolls who were considered to be ugly or naughty. This is an example of a recent replication study in Italy and the results are shocking.
Effects on child development and coping
Children who experience discrimination have shown to exhibit lower levels of self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and show less prosocial behavior. In addition, perceived discrimination negatively affects children’s school achievement. Research indicates that boys are more at risk for negative developmental outcomes than girls.
Children develop different coping strategies when confronted with discrimination. Some children may choose to seek social support whereas others may prefer to rely on problem-solving strategies. Both strategies appear to be more successful compared to avoidance or emotion-focused strategies.
Important lessons for ECEC
- Perceived discrimination can be experienced at the individual and/or at the societal or even global level. This means we should not ignore it, but we should be aware of it and consider the potential implications for children and their families.
- It is important to reflect on your own (implicit) prejudice in order to try and reverse this prejudice.
- Keep in mind that categorization of people according to physical features reflects how our brain functions but be aware about attributing social meaning or valence based on these characteristics.
Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., McCullough, M., & Garcia Coll, C. (2015). The development and implications of racism and discrimination. Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, 3, 323-349.