Adults Put Off Crucial Conversations About Race Because They Mistakenly Think Young Children Won’t Understand

By Emily Reynolds

Conversations about race are not always easy, as the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has recently explored in her brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. But they’re no less necessary for it: not talking about racism is simply not an option, particularly for those of us who benefit from structural inequality.

We all have a part to play in this ongoing dialogue — including parents of children growing up in a world full of racial injustice. Previous research has suggested that constructive conversations about race and ethnicity can have positive outcomes for children of all races — increased empathy, an ability to learn about and accept different perspectives, a better understanding of their own identity, and less racial bias.

But a new paper from Jessica Sullivan at Skidmore College and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that those crucial conversations are being delayed — because parents are misjudging their children’s ability to process and understand race.

In the first two studies, the researchers asked almost 1,200 participants to indicate on a sliding scale the earliest age at which they would talk to children about race. Participants also stated what age, in months, they believed children developed certain behaviours and abilities. These questions focused on three areas: development of behaviours around race (e.g. the age at which children begin to prefer faces from their own racial groups), social development (e.g. the age at which children can tell faces from non-faces), and general development (e.g. the age at which children can recognise their mother’s voice). Some were about relatively less complex processes, such as recognising faces of different races, while others concerned higher level processes, such as inferring the status of group members by race.

Compared to the best estimate from scientific research, participants were out by less than a year in their estimates of children’s general development and by two years for social development — but by four years for race questions, vastly overestimating the age that children begin to develop race-related capacities. Participants also stated that conversations about race should first happen around a child’s fifth birthday, and their beliefs weren’t influenced by their race, age, sex, experience with children or how diverse their everyday environment is.

The third study looked at the causal relationship between these factors — if participants had better knowledge of developmental milestones, would it increase their willingness to talk to children about race at an earlier age? To find out, the team randomly assigned 328 participants to one of three categories in which they saw pieces of information related to either children’s ability to understand race (e.g. “Babies spontaneously prefer faces from particular racial groups at around three months of age”), adult interpretation of race, and general child development.

It seemed to work. Those who read facts about children’s abilities to understand race estimated the age of development of these capacities at less than 18 months from the best scientific estimates — and they endorsed discussing race with children a year earlier than participants who learned about adults and race.

Of course, it’s unclear when the optimal age to start talking to children about race is, but given that increased knowledge was certainly good for adults, it makes sense that children would benefit from explicit conversations too, as previous research has shown.

A better understanding of how to talk about race with children might also help. Another recent paper, written by Katharine E. Scott and a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, found scant evidence for the effectiveness of various parental interventions for reducing racial biases in children, and called for other researchers to develop “supported, specific, shareable suggestions” for parents wanting to engage their children in conversations about race.

It would also be useful to explore differences in approaches in such conversations between parents of different races: although in this study participant race made no difference to knowledge about children’s developmental milestones, the team acknowledges that a Black family is unlikely to talk about race in the same way as a White family.

What we know for sure is that children are growing up in a heavily racialised world — and it’s children of colour who are feeling the brunt of that, experiencing racial discrimination well before they even reach adolescence. Having simple conversations with your children can’t undo structural inequality — but it should be considered a vital part of children’s socialisation. 

Adults delay conversations about race because they underestimate children’s processing of race.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest