Interventions to Reduce Prejudice and Discrimination in Children and Adolescents
Frances E. Aboud McGill University
Sheri R. Levy SUNY Stony Brook
For many years, people have thought that prejudice and discrimination were relatively minor problems in children. In part, this may have been based on the reports of parents and teachers, who typically do not witness racial conflicts and namecalling. While it is probably the case that the prejudice of children is not as hostile and intentionally hurtful as that of adolescents and adults, it is nonetheless harmful to the children who possess it, and even more so to those who are its targets. As with adults, prejudice and exclusion vary with the child, and they also vary with the child's developmental level and social world. Children are not as cognitively, emotionally, and verbally sophisticated as adults. Consequently, their understanding of racial differences may be simpler and may lead to false dichotomies. Their emotional reactions to people who differ may be wariness rather than hostility, and their name-calling may be hollow imitations, rather than heartfelt. Nonetheless, prejudice and discrimination isolate children from others in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse.
Also, the belief that prejudice is a minor problem in children was in part due to theories of prejudice development. The learning theory of prejudice asserted that children gradually acquired prejudice from parents, peers, and the media. Most psychologists assumed that the learning curve was a gradual one. While it is probably true that children are not born prejudiced, we now know that they do not simply imitate others' prejudice. Social-cognitive capabilities initially constrain their processing of social information into dichotomous categories and evaluations, which only later become more flexible. Consequently, interventions are likely to be effective only if they take into account whether particular children already have a bias or not, and whether they are cognitively able to integrate the new message.