Talking to Children About Race, Gender, and Social Issues: Review and Recommendations

February 9, 2022

Key Findings 

  • Children are born categorizers; they already notice different kinds of people and are being treated differently.
  • Educators and caregivers can foster safe, respectful conversations in age-appropriate ways; development research identifies benefits to providing simple descriptions of complex concepts, validating children’s emotions related to their lived experiences, and highlighting cultural strengths and positive experiences to belonging to social groups.

In the first year of life, infants develop the ability to differentiate people by race and gender. As they continue to grow, children will develop a preference for people they perceive as in-group members. These preferences eventually shape identity development and children begin to hold gender- and race-based stereotypes about others, according to new research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. In their article, “Talking to Children About Race, Gender, and Social Issues: Review and Recommendations,” authors Lacey J. Hilliard, Matthew K. Attaya, and Michelle Millben discuss the development of in-group and out-group mentalities in children, the consequences of these mentalities, and ways we can diminish them.

By early elementary school, children perceive in-group members more favorably than out-group members. Despite this fact, many educators and caregivers are reluctant to discuss topics surrounding diversity and inclusion in school and at home. According to the article, 35 percent of adults believe sexism should not be addressed with children and only 39 percent of teachers feel it is appropriate to discuss race and ethnicity with students.

PIBBS Volume 8 Issue 2 (October 2021 Release) Journal Cover
PIBBS Volume 8 Issue 2

This low rate of discussion contrasts with the finding in another survey wherein 68 percent of K-12 educators responded that they believe it is very or extremely important to discuss race and racism with their students. Teachers that do not discuss topics such as race in their classrooms report a variety of reasons for not doing so, including concerns from parents and limited resources and training.

Without a structure to understand social issues, children will develop views on social groups without having the tools necessary to challenge them. Research has shown that teaching children directly about discrimination can reduce biases and aids them in identifying when discrimination is occurring. In school and at home, discussions about differences can help foster understanding, inclusion, belonging, and social cohesion. Recently, lawmakers in several states have proposed restrictions on how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues. Better supports are needed – from administrators, families, and community members –to give educators the tools to effectively address current and historical events while navigating the local, state, and nationwide contexts.

The scientific evidence is clear that children notice differences and social stratification around them and, without alternative explanations, often develop explanations that lead to racial and other social group stereotypes. However, evidence suggests that talking to children about prejudice, inequality, and discrimination reduces their biases. With varied and age-appropriate discussions, even young children can understand complex topics on these issues. With the proper tools and training, educators and caregivers can help mitigate discrimination and help children understand the benefits of diverse perspectives and experiences.

“Talking to Children About Race, Gender, and Social Issues: Review and Recommendations” is part of a special edition on Child Development Psychology.

Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (PIBBS) presents research and scientific reviews relevant to public policy. The articles allow scientists to share research that can help build sound policies, allow policymakers to provide feedback to the scientific community regarding research that could address societal challenges, and encourage the scientific community to build models that seriously consider implementation to address the needs of society.

Published by Sage Publishing, in association with the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS), PIBBS challenges behavioral and brain scientists to build theoretical models that seriously consider obstacles to implementation so that the needs of society can be addressed. We are particularly interested in addressing policymakers in government and funding organizations who are thinking about gaps in scientific knowledge and want to encourage development of the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior in targeted directions.