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ROBINSON, O. -. (2002). Racial and Gender Awareness in Preschoolers. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 5. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 26, 2023 .

Racial and Gender Awareness in Preschoolers

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
This study was conducted to discover the age at which children become aware of their own race and gender as well as the race and gender of others. A sample of 13 Caucasian Loyola University Daycare preschoolers, ages 3 and 4, participated. Each was asked to describe a series of pictures featuring children of differing gender and race, as well as, describe their own physical appearance. It was hypothesized that participants would mention race more frequently when describing pictured children than when describing themselves, and that gender would be more frequently mentioned than race in both conditions. No significance was found supporting the hypothesis that gender would be more frequently mentioned. However, significant results supporting the claim that children would mention the race of pictured children more frequently than their own were found. It was concluded that a larger sample size is necessary in future studies, and that further research in this area could help prevent the development of racial and gender stereotypes.

Countless psychological studies throughout the years have examined and inquired about the degree of race and gender bias held by America’s youth. They have uncovered fascinating and even somewhat shocking results about the minds of children, their early ideals, and their degree of bias. Around the age of two, children are said to develop a sense of self. They begin to “carry with them a sense of who they are and what makes them different from everyone else” (Santrock, 2002, p.134). This sense of self, to some degree includes awareness of gender, as apparent through the child`s application of gender labels (Berger, 2001). However, many studies have failed to focus on one fundamental question. At what age do children become most aware of gender and race distinctions within themselves and among others? The answer to this question is crucial in attempting to understand why and when children develop prejudice. If we are aware of the time at which children begin to notice and validate physical distinctions among people, we will know when to begin teaching tolerance and acceptance without stereotypes. The key, therefore, is to begin before young minds have had a chance to develop stereotypes and bigotry. Most studies focusing on bias development in children have been conducted using older elementary school students. For example, a study conducted by Sanders (2002) examining the role of literature in bias development. Although this type of information is extremely pertinent in understanding prejudice development, it targets children for who have already developed some stereotyped views of other people. Another example of this is a 1974 study conducted by Singh and Yancey, which examined the level of racial bias in 41 first grade participants through the combined use of color photographs and a standardized attitude measure. Participants were shown a series of story-accompanied pictures varying in race and gender. Participants were then asked to point to the picture that the story was about. During the following month, participants became involved in activities designed to decrease racial prejudice, such as movies and biographies that portrayed African Americans in a positive manner. Results of this study showed that once the participants were again tested after involvement in a multi-ethnic education, bias had significantly reduced in comparison with pretest scores. While these students were much younger than those used in the literature study, they still exhibited some initial levels of racial and gender bias. Not all research in this area, however, has focused on older children. A study by Glover and Smith (1997) examined the relationship between the age of the participant, race of the examiner, and level of multiculturalism within each participant’s daycare center. This study, which involved 60 preschool children between the ages of three and six years old, determined that both African American and Caucasian participants showed a higher level of Caucasian favoring bias, with this level being even greater in African American children attending predominately African American daycare facilities. This was not the case with Caucasian participants attending predominately Caucasian facilities. Furthermore, Caucasian children who were tested by a Caucasian examiner displayed a higher level of bias than those tested by an African American examiner. The development of racial awareness and bias has been a key interest for researchers concerning children cross-culturally as well as across the age span. Another study, conducted in France, by Hirschfeld (1993), also focused on preschoolers. His study required participants to recall racial characteristic after either listening to a story or viewing a picture. Results showed that participants recalled more information after listening to the verbal narrative than after viewing the image. This study influenced ours by pointing out the importance of providing participants with some verbal stimuli as well as showing them pictures. However, neither Hirschfeld nor Glover and Smith`s studies, despite their focus on preschoolers, offers any insight as to the beginnings or source of racial bias. A majority of the past studies involving racial and gender awareness in young children focused mainly on presence of racism or stereotypical thinking. Because our study had more to do with the mere development of gender and racial consciousness, our method is rather different from any one study in particular, and instead combines and alters the technique of several studies. When determining what method of study and procedure we would use in our experiment, a 1998 study conducted by Dutton, Singer, and Devlin was extremely influential. These researchers tested fourth graders through a combination of drawing measures, self-concept tests, and stories accompanied by pictures. The participants were drawn from a predominately Caucasian school, a predominately African American school, and two completely integrated schools. They hypothesized that the level of integration or the lack of exposure to the opposite race would effect the participants` probability of mentioning their own race, acknowledgment of racial difference while drawing, as well as their degree of racial acceptance, as evident in friendship choices. Results showed that exposure to other races through integration commonly led to opposite-race friendships, as well as higher levels of acknowledgement of the participant`s own race. The past studies we examined have one major component in common; they all focus on finding some evidence of racial bias in children. They also, for the most part, were conducted with children who had been in school for several years. In most, participants, because they were older, had already developed race and gender awareness, and, in many cases had acquired biased stereotypes. We anticipated that by studying very young children, we could get some insight as to when they began to develop this awareness. Although the purpose of our research is not to study the existence of biased beliefs in children, we believe our results may offer insight that could be helpful in preventing the development of bias beliefs in the future. In our study, we examined the age at which children become most aware of gender and racial differences, by showing preschoolers between the ages of three and five, pictures of children varying in skin color and gender. We also asked them to give a description of their own physical appearance. We hypothesized that if the preschoolers were asked to describe the physical appearances of pictured children, they would be more likely to mention race or skin color than they would be if asked to describe their own appearance. Because gender distinctions are generally more obvious than racial ones, we also expected gender to be mentioned more often than race in both self and picture descriptions. This hypothesis was also based on our belief that most parents acknowledge and discuss gender distinction with their children at an earlier age than they do with race, thus, causing participants to mention gender more often than race, even if only in the form of gender pronouns.

Participants Our sample consisted of 13 Caucasian Loyola University Daycare preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. The sample included 7 females and 6 males. The participants were drawn from the Loyola University Daycare Center in New Orleans, Louisiana through convenience sampling. Participants were recruited after receiving permission from the daycare director, consent from parents, and their own assent. Materials A consent form, providing procedure details and possible implications, was sent to each parent prior to the start of the study. Line drawings, printed on 8.5 x 11 inch paper, were used in this experiment. Each drawing contained a single child at play against a neutral background. The skin color of each pictured child was manipulated, resulting in a light and dark skinned adaptation of each picture. This resulted in two versions of each of the four pictured children producing a total of eight possible pictures. Pictures of four different children, two male and two female, were shown to each participant. Participants were also asked to give a description of their own physical appearance. All responses were recorded using a hand held tape recorder. Demographic information, including name and age was also collected on each participant. Design and Procedure The design of this study was non-experimental and descriptive. Variables included the age of the participants, as well as, the race and gender of the pictured children shown to participants. The researchers used a structured checklist to note the participant`s responses on the picture and self-descriptions. For the procedure, parents received letters of consent that informed them about the details of the study and gave them the opportunity to state in writing whether or not their child had permission to participate in the study. Children whose parents gave permission for participation were asked if they would like to join the activity. With the permission of the daycare director and under the supervision of the classroom teachers, the researchers spent a few days interacting with the children in order to become familiar and comfortable with the children before testing actually began. Each student was assigned a code number that corresponded with his or her demographic information. Once parental consent and the child’s assent were obtained, each participant was shown four pictures, one of each gender and color, for 30 seconds each. After each picture was taken away, the participant was asked, “What did you see in the picture?” and then, “What did the child in the picture look like?” After the final picture had been displayed and the response recorded, the participant was asked, “If you were to tell me what you looked like, what would you say?” Upon completion of this task, each participant was given the opportunity to have any questions answered, or voice any concerns. Each self and picture description was recorded using a hand held tape recorder. None of the participant’s demographic information was indicated on the tape, and only his/her code number was used to identify each student. After all necessary data was recorded; every code number and tape recording was destroyed. Participation was strictly on a voluntary basis, and if, at any time, a participant wished to withdraw or terminate his/her participation, he/she was permitted to do so without consequence. All research was done under the supervision of the classroom teachers, and all participants were tested individually in a distraction free environment, on the premises of the Loyola Daycare Center. With the completion of the study, debriefing materials and summarized results were made available to each parent.

In a sample of 13 Caucasian participants, the mean age was 3.54 (SD = .5189). There were a total of 7 females and 6 males. It was hypothesized that participants would mention race more frequently when describing pictured children than when describing themselves. No significant results were found supporting this hypothesis. It was found that the mean mention of race for pictured children was 0.15 (SD = 0.22). The mean mention of race for self-description was .00. Table 1 shows the frequency with which race and gender are mentioned in each individual picture, and in self-descriptions. No students mentioned race when describing their own appearance, and there were few who mentioned it when describing the appearance of pictured children. A Cochran’s Q test was used to compare the mention of race in the both conditions, and no significant difference was found in the frequency with which race was mentioned in picture and self-descriptions, Q = 5.54, p > .10. There is, however, evidence of a trend regarding race mention of pictured children. Of these, all but one participant, referred to African American figures. Collapsing across all pictures to average mention of race, thereby increasing variance, and comparing to self-mention, did however yield a significant difference; z = -2.33, p = .02. This was done using a Wilcoxon Signed-Ranks Test. A second hypothesis stated that participants were more likely to mention gender than race, both when describing pictured children and describing themselves. A Wilcoxon Signed-Ranks Test was used to compare the frequency with which participants mentioned race and gender in both picture and self-descriptions. As shown in Table 1, gender is more frequently mentioned in both individual picture descriptions, and self-descriptions. On average, when describing pictured children, gender was mentioned 40% of the time (SD = .31), and race was mentioned only 15% of the time (SD = .22). This yielded a significant difference, z = -2.59, p = .01. The frequency with which race and gender were mentioned when describing themselves were also significantly different, z = -2.00, p = .046. Self-gender was mentioned 31% of the time (SD = .48), and no participants mentioned their own race.

It was hypothesized that participants would mention race more frequently when describing pictured children than when describing themselves. However, no significant difference was found between frequencies of race mentioned when self-description was compared to individual pictures. Despite the fact that no participants mentioned race during self-description, race mention among pictures was somewhat low as well. A possible explanation for the lack of significance can be attributed to the low power of the study. Participation from a larger number of participants may yield a generally larger number of mentions, thereby enabling a significant difference to be found. While the hypothesis was left unsupported when self description was compared to individual pictures, once the pictures were averaged, there was a significant difference in the frequency with which race was mentioned. This added variance to the study, thereby counterbalancing the lack of power. The fact that significant results were found once the low power was offset, further supports the idea that a larger sample size may improve results in future studies.A second reason for the lack of significant findings may be due to the fact that, in many ways, acknowledgement of racial distinctions is somewhat discouraged. In modern day efforts to remain politically correct, and keep from offending others, the subject and mere mention of race is somewhat purposefully avoided. Many attempt to show their open-mindedness and lack of prejudice by avoiding the reference completely, viewing people in other terms, aside from any racial distinctions they may possess. It is possible that these ideals are passed down to todays children. Although it is probably unlikely that parents deliberately point out these social norms to their children, it is possible that the mere disregard by parents sends a message to children that the mention of racial distinctions is not acceptable. It is also possible that because children may not hear their parents pointing out race when describing others, they do not think to do so either.It is interesting to note, however, that although race was not commonly mentioned among participants, in most cases, when it was noted, it was in reference to African American pictures. This may illustrate that children are more likely to notice, and therefore mention, when the individual’s race is different from their own. Another reason for this noteworthy trend may be due to the fact that Caucasian children have less reason to be aware of their race than do minorities. Because they are the majority, their race is less of an issue, making them less likely to notice their own skin color, or the skin color of other Caucasians. The daycare from which we obtained our sample is predominately white, thereby causing students to be even less aware of racial distinctions than Caucasian students at more diverse institutions. Because most everyone around them is Caucasian, it may be seen as the “normal” race, and therefore unnecessary to take notice of or acknowledge. It was further hypothesized, in this study, that the frequency of gender acknowledgements would outweigh that of race in both picture and self-descriptions. Evidence of a markedly higher mention of gender, thereby supporting this hypothesis, was found. One reason for this may be attributed to the age and cognitive development of the participants. It is possible that the capacity for gender awareness simply develops earlier than that of racial awareness. This may be due to biological developments in the brain as well as social and environmental factors. From an early age, beginning with the “blue or pink” mentality of parents, children are categorized in accordance with their gender. Children often choose their friends and segregate themselves according to this similarity. This conformity to societal gender norms is often fostered by parental encouragement and reinforcement. This type of early and blatant gender differentiation, may lead to the frequency with which the participants acknowledged gender as apposed to race.A final reason may be due to the race of the participants themselves. As mentioned earlier, race may be a “non-issue” for many Caucasian children in America. This is especially true for those left unexposed to racial diversity in their school, such as the participants in our study. This apparent lack of same-race awareness can therefore be attributed to the possibility that for these children, race is not a major focus for consideration or concern. A major improvement to future studies in this area includes pursuing a larger sample. The small sample size in this study not only made significant results difficult to find, but it greatly threatened the external validity of the study. Generalizing an entire population is somewhat impossible to do based on information gathered from 13 participants. Another shortcoming of the study involves the lack of response when participants were asked to report on there own appearance. Relatively few respondents said anything at all, and the few responses that were elicited were somewhat limited in nature. It may be beneficial to provide participants with a mirror or photograph of themselves. Because it would make self-description more analogous to picture conditions, being able to actually see oneself may result in more frequent and detailed explanations. Most of the past research concerning the area of racial and gender awareness has focused a majority of its attention on the presence racism and stereotypical thinking. This study is less concerned with whether or not children of this age have formed these types of biased ideas, and more interested in simply whether or not preschool aged children are even aware of their own race and gender. Past studies have shown that gender awareness is existent by age 2 (Santrock, 2002, p.134), but relatively little is known concerning the age of onset for racial awareness. It can be assumed that racial awareness varies a great deal more from one individual to the next than does gender awareness, with minority children`s awareness surfacing at an earlier age. The subjectivity of this topic may account for the relative lack of research in the area. Pursuing this area of research will lead to further knowledge in the area of racial and gender awareness. Knowing when children become aware of their and other’s race may guide the pursuit to better understanding when and how to cease the development of racial and gender stereotype and bias. If parents, teachers, and administration are made aware of an average age at which this awareness develops, they can create effective tolerance programs, which can be taught before any prejudice ideals have the chance to develop.

Berger, K. S. (2001). The Developing Person: Through the Lifespan (5th ED.). NewYork: Worth Publishers.

Dutton, S.E., Singer, J.A., & Devlin, A. S. (1998). Racial Identity of Children in Integrated, Predominantly White, and Black Schools. The Journal of Social Psychology, 138, 41-53.

Glover, R.J., & Smith, L.A. (1997). Racial Attitudes of Preschoolers: Age Race of Examiner, and child-care setting. Psychological Reports, 81, 719-722.

Hirschfeld, L. A. (1993). Discovering Social Differences: The Role of Appearance in the Development of Racial Awareness. Cognitive Psychology, 25, 317-350.

Santrock, J.W. (2002). Life-Span Development (8th ED.). New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.Saunders, K. (2002, May 2). Disability Culture in Children’s Literature [ONLINE]. Retrieved October 6, 2002. .

Singh, J.M. & Yanley, A.V. (1974). Racial Attitudes in White First Grade Children. The Journal of Educational Research, 67, 370-372.

Table1Frequency of Race and Gender Mention Mentioned Picture Variable BM WM WF BF Self Race 3 1 1 3 0Gender 6 8 6 5 4 Note. BM = black male; WM = white male; WF = white female;BF = black female.

Submitted 12/15/2002 9:19:42 PM
Last Edited 12/15/2002 9:41:15 PM
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