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Let's start from the beginning: Do kids even see or notice race? The answer is yes, they see and notice racial differences from a very young age, even in infancy. In fact, several studies by psychologists Phyllis Katz and Jennifer Kofkin have found that infants and very young children (from six to 18 months) will gaze at the faces of people of a different race longer than they look at faces from their own racial group. A prolonged gaze is how infants and toddlers commonly react to new information, and here it suggests racial difference is visually salient to them. This means that kids are able to notice and pay attention to racial differences even before they can speak about them. Katz and Kofkin also found that, by the age of three, children will start choosing to play with people of their own race more than people of a different race.
While they may notice racial differences and even prefer members of their own race, this doesn't mean that kids this young understand race in the same ways adults do, nor does it mean they're burgeoning racists. For children under the age of seven, race—or, rather, physical traits like skin color, language, and hair texture—are just signs that someone is in some way different from themselves, similar to gender or weight. It's not unusual or unhealthy for kids to gravitate toward the familiar so early in life. Kids' views only become prejudiced when they start linking these physical traits to flaws in character or behavior. We adults are the ones who ascribe malice to simply noticing racial differences.
So in and of itself, recognizing racial difference is not a cause for alarm—quite the opposite, in fact. For years, studies have found that children who recognize these kinds of differences from an early age show a stronger general ability to identify subtle differences between categories like color, shape, and size—which, in turn, has been linked to higher performance on intelligence tests. Researcher Francis Aboud has found that children between the ages of four and seven who show this advanced ability to identify and categorize differences are actually less prejudiced. So parents, rest assured: When children notice and ask about racial differences, it's a normal and healthy stage of development.
Now comes the tricky part: How do you answer those questions?
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