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The Miracle of Difference: When Does Fascination Become Prejudice

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It is a wonderful spring day in the city park. Gina loves the park; she looks over to the swings and sees a beautiful girl with multitudes of colorful beads in her hair. With excitement Gina runs over to the girl with the fantastic beads and says, “Hi your hair is so pretty, wanna play”. The little girl with the colorful beads (Tracie) takes an immediate liking to Gina and Gina’s flowing blond tresses. They have an excellent time playing together and both stop to listen as Rosie is talking to her mother. Neither of the girls can understand what Rosie is saying; they are both curious, so they walk over closer to Rosie.

Rosie is happy and excited to join the two girls in their play and explains to them her mother only understands Spanish. Both Gina and Tracie are enthralled with this strange but not unpleasant sound. Soon all three girls are greatly enjoying their time together. Oh, the beauty and uncomplicated nature of children. Yes, children notice differences; as a matter of fact they are often heard blurting out the most politically incorrect things imaginable. Mama, why is that girl so fat, Mama why is that girl’s skin so dark, Mama why does that girl have only one leg, or Mama why are those two daddies holding hands; none of these questions would be a surprise coming from a toddler. However, none of those things would keep the child from wanting to get to know that person or play with that person or keep that child from loving that person. America is an exciting melting pot of ethnicities and diversities.  When and why does a child’s fascination with and curiosity about differences morph into prejudice?

Infants, Is Prejudice Born Here?

Table 1

The Cognitive/Social Abilities of Infants

Age(s) Abilities


Newborn A newborn can focus on and follow objects, and distinguish sounds. He, or she starts to anticipate events such as sucking a nipple (Wells, 2006).
2-3m At this stage baby will usually withdraw and cry if a stranger tries to get close, too abruptly (Bergen Jr, 2001). Baby will also recognize and imitate facial expressions (Wells, 2006).
4-6m Baby will begin to recognize his or her name. Baby will also recognize parents and begin to fear strangers. (Wells, 2006) Baby prefers to look at things that are different (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000).
8-9m Baby learns actions have consequences, and will repeat actions with pleasurable effects (Parents as Teachers National Center, Inc., 2005).
9-12m Between nine and twelve months baby will begin to test parental responses to their behavior; will remember response and repeat the test to see if they get the same response (Wells, 2006). Baby learns that people in their environment can go away (may get frightened when mommy leaves the room (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000).
12-18m At 12 to 18 months baby will start developing attachments to objects and experience separation anxiety when away from parents. At 18 months baby can speak about 50 words. Baby will start to identify body parts. This is the point that baby will start to feel a sense of ownership (Wells, 2006).
18-24m Now baby can understand permanence of people and objects. They begin to understand what behavior is appropriate and not appropriate and discipline. They will understand the concept of social words like “please” and “thank you”. The baby will have a better understanding of emotions, such as love, trust, and fear (Wells, 2006).

Some believe that children are born with prejudice. However, studies have shown that this is not true. Newborns and infants do not have the cognitive capacity to feel prejudice. After a few months infants may cry when strangers pick them up because they might begin to fear strangers (Wells, 2006). However, it is about this same time children start to prefer and be interested in things that are different (Dobbs, 2007). How many parents have not noticed no matter how many toys an infant has they always want mommy’s or daddy’s keys, the fingernail polish, or the dog’s food? A child during this stage of life starts learning how to interact with people; he, or she will learn that certain behaviors will make people laugh. The infant will repeat the action time and time again to get the same response (Wells, 2006). Anyone who has been around a child this age surely has experienced the, “I throw it down and you pick it up” game. This is the time in life when a child experiences and begins to understand emotions like, happiness, love, fear, and trust. Even though children may show some distrust or fear of strangers, it is normally short lived as the new person becomes familiar to them. A child at this stage of cognitive development is incapable of prejudice.

Toddlers, Could This Be Where Prejudice Starts?

Table 2

The Cognitive/Social Abilities of Toddlers

Age(s) Abilities


2 Y By two years children have developed an idea about the roles of different sexes (Lonsdale, 1995). A two year-old is just as likely to attribute a person’s color to their clothes as to their skin (Abel, 2001). When asked questions they do not understand will most often answer yes (Fritzley & Lee, 2003). These children are open and interested in differences; they will ask questions about differences (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000).
3 Y At three years of age In-Group Preference appears (Aboud F. , 1988). At three year-old a child’s view of the world is very self-centered. (Wells, 2006) He, or she is able to sort photos on the basis of gender (Bergen Jr, 2001). This child does not apply differences to culture, a white child with dark hair and a dark complexion may insist that she is black (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000). Self-concepts are based on physical features and motor performance, such as: I have long hair, I can jump high at this age (ADL2004).

At this stage children have a very good understanding of the roles of different sexes, such as, girls are mommies and boys are daddies (Lonsdale, 1995). At this stage in a child’s development they are aware of differences in looks of gender also and will be able to sort pictures by gender (Bergen Jr, 2001). They are aware of different skin, hair, and eye color, but in the same way that they notice clothing color. A child at this age may refer to a black woman in a yellow dress as the “yellow lady” (Abel, 2001).

Along these same lines of thought, another child may insist he, or she is black simply because he, or she has a dark tan and dark hair (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000).  This child may ask why a person’s skin color does not match what it is called; for example, they may say, “I am tan not white”, “Johnny is brown not black” (ADL2004). At this stage of cognitive development children do not apply physical differences to culture (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000). As in the story of Gina and Tracie children at this age are more likely to be fascinated with differences; a child may have the desire to acquire the hairstyle, eye color, language, etc. for themselves. Since a child at this stage of cognitive development does not attribute differences to culture, and they are more likely to enjoy differences, it is not at this stage that prejudice is born.

Preschool Children is This Age the Beginning of a Life of Prejudice?

Table 3

The Cognitive/Social Abilities of Preschoolers

Age(s) Abilities


4 Y A four year-old realizes that color is a constant and is attached to a person (Abel, 2001). He, or she develops a sense of ethnic awareness (Bernstein, Zimmerman, Werner-Wilson, & Vosburg, 2000). At this age a child will start testing limits within cognitive abilities, such as talking back to adults, lying and bullying (Wells, 2006). When asked questions they do not understand children of this age will most often answer no (Fritzley & Lee, 2003). He, or she will begin to seek explanations for differences. They want to know why and how they acquired their skin, hair and eye color (ADL2004). At this age children may start to group themselves with others of the same physical features.
5 Y It is at this age that weak levels of Out-Group prejudice appear; however, what may seem to be Out-Group prejudice might still only be In-Group Preference (Aboud & Amato, 2001). A five year-old will often go out of their way to avoid anything to do with the opposite sex (Lonsdale, 1995). Negative Out-Group feelings are distrust [of the unfamiliar] not dislike (Abel, 2001). He, or she will begin to build a group ethnic identity. A five year-old will begin to understand scientific explanations for differences in skin color, hair texture and eye shape. They are more aware of family traditions and family history (Stern-Larosa & Bettmann, 2000).

At this age since children are able to group like objects they do so. However, children of this age are not able to group multi-dimensionally (Aboud F. , 2003). About the time that children start developing ethnic self-awareness they are able to group themselves. By the age of five children are well aware of gender differences also. As anyone who has been near a preschool playground can easily see this is an age where children definitely start segregating themselves by gender. Once this child has built an ethnic group identity weak levels of prejudice might seem to exist. However, according to many studies, specifically Aboud and Amato (2001), what may appear as prejudice here is more likely just in-group preference. Since children at this age have a cognitively weak level of grouping, and it is acknowledged that they already group themselves by gender, and now by ethnic identity, it is not likely that they are prejudice against the out-group. The more likely situation is that this child is simply showing a preference for what is familiar.  A preference for the familiar does not equal prejudice against the out-group; just that the out-group is something the child is not comfortable with because it is unfamiliar. However, one can clearly see that the seeds of prejudice can very well grow from here if one does not take the time to get to know the out-group. This child needs to be exposed to the out-group to learn about and respect the differences, so that the unknown does not become the undesired.

School Age Children and Pre-Adolescents, is this when the Out-Group Becomes the Hated?

Table 4

The Cognitive/Social Abilities of School-Age Children Pre-Adolescents

Age(s) Abilities


6 Y Will often go out of their way to avoid anything to do with the opposite sex. Girls start to realize that female characteristics are less valued than male. Often when asked they would prefer to have been born male, on the contrary boys would rather die than be a girl (Lonsdale, 1995). Often when children first report encounters with racism (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000).
7 Y Girls having realized that female characteristics are less valued than male; might start adopting the role of tomboy (Lonsdale, 1995). Will use social comparison to alter behavior and to assess self abilities (Brown & Bigler, 2005).
8 Y At this age prejudice can easily be lowered by discussions with peers of lower prejudice level (Aboud, 1996). Grow out of egocentric state and start realizing that there are other perspectives (Abel, 2001). Will still go out of their way to avoid anything to do with the opposite sex (Lonsdale, 1995).

By the time children start elementary school they have a well developed ethnic group identity. At the time of starting first grade a child well understands that his, or her ethnicity is a thing of permanence. Between the ages of five and seven a child’s sense of self and in-group identity increase (Aboud F. , 1988). As a child’s in-group identity increases so might his, or her out-group prejudice. When in-group preference starts, it is just that and not out-group prejudice. As one researches children and prejudice it becomes apparent that this is the cognitive stage at which preference for the familiar and known; along with the fear and distrust of the unfamiliar, can be seeds of prejudice waiting to take root.

Studies have shown that children at this age can adopt the negative feelings of others, even when those others never say a negative word against the out-group. For example, Caroline and her mother love walking around the French Quarter of New Orleans; Caroline notices that each time a black man walks by, her mother clutches her purse tightly against her side. When Johnnie became lost in the mall, a policeman tried to find out what his name was he refused to answer. When Johnnie’s frantic mother spotted him with the policeman, she asked why he did not tell him his name. “Uncle Bobby said policeman will put us in jail for just being black” was Johnnie’s reply. Just being careful not to say negative things to one’s children about other races or cultures is not enough. There are plenty of others, including the media that will impress negative opinions on children (Nevid & Rathus, 2005).

Even though studies have shown that feelings of prejudice rise between the ages of five and seven, there are studies of group interaction at this age showing a reduction in prejudice. The studies involve low prejudice children having discussions about prejudice with children of higher prejudice. The studies show a marked reduction in prejudice and never an increase (Aboud & Doyle, 1996).

Adolescents and Prejudice, Do We Allow it Grow or Just Say No.

Table 5

The Cognitive/Social Abilities of Adolescents

Age(s) Abilities
9 – 12 Y An adolescent emerges from the egocentric state and starts realizing that there are other perspectives (Abel, 2001). He, or she will consistently use social comparison to evaluate self (Brown & Bigler, 2005). Adolescents are gaining a greater understanding of how history and geography shape various aspects of culture (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000). At this age prejudice can easily be lowered by discussions with peers of lower prejudice levels (Aboud, 1996).
10 Y Near the middle of adolescence perception of discrimination nears that of adults (Brown & Bigler, 2005).
13-15 Y An increase in self-consciousness becomes evident in early adolescence. Adolescents are preoccupied with appearance. In early teens children show interest in others’ mental states and feelings. They want to please others (Oesterreich, 1995).
15-18 Y A decrease in self-consciousness occurs in late teens. Young people wrestle emotionally with identity issues. Self-concept is based on personality traits, friendships, romantic appeal (Oesterreich, 1995).

At this stage of cognitive ability children are more able to understand the intricacies of difference. An adolescent is equipped to understand the perspectives and feelings of others (Abel, 2001). To this point in life child’s perspective has been very narrow, restricted to those of self and in-group. Now the adolescent is gaining a much broader understanding of history and how different cultures are shaped (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000). Studies have shown early adolescence to be a time where prejudice can be decreased by conversations about prejudice with non-prejudice peers. This is a time of much turbulence for children and many are at a vulnerable place in life where they can be easily influenced by thoughts and opinions of others, good and bad. James Baldwin had a good point when he said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain” (Nevid & Rathus, 2005, p.218).

Now We Know When Prejudice Starts What Can We Do?

Through many studies, several mentioned in this text, we know that making oneself part of a group is part of a child’s maturation process. However, these same studies show us that while in-group preference is very common and occurs early in the cognitive development, out-group prejudice is less common and occurs later and weakly (Aboud & Amato, 2001, Abel, 2001, Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000). Other studies have shown that one, children can form groups based on a variety of issues (social, racial, gender, etc); two, spending significant time with someone outside of the in-group and getting to know them lessens prejudice (Stern-LaRosa & Bettmann, 2000); and three, talking to children about prejudice lessens prejudice (Aboud & Doyle, 1996).

In conclusion, the first tiny seed of prejudice is planted between the age of four and five. This is not just a simple seed of prejudice which is planted, but a hybrid product of “becoming a part of a group” and “the unknown of the out-group”. If we allow these seeds to become fertile and grow they can become prejudice. We know the when; we know the how; let’s stop those seeds from taking root!


“You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.

You’ve got to be taught from year to year.

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid,

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate!

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Song from the Broadway musical

South Pacific. Copyright ©1949

(Renewed) by Richard Rodgers

and Oscar Hammerstein II



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Aboud, F. (1988). Children and prejudice. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

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Bernstein, J., Zimmerman, T., Werner-Wilson, R., & Vosburg, J. (2000). Preschool children’s classification skills and a multicultural education: Intervention to promote acceptance of ethnic diversity. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 14(2), 181. Retrieved November 5, 2007, from <http://find.galegroup.com/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS>

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Lonsdale, S. (1995). Sexism that starts in the nursery Sarah Lonsdale argues that inherent differences between girls and boys are soon superseded by conditioning. The guardian (18). Retrieved November 1, 2007, from http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/pqdweb?did=19107512&sid=2&fmt=3&clientid=13118&rqt=309&vname=pqd

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