How and When Do Children Become Aware of the Construct of “Race”?

How and When Do Children Become Aware of the Construct of “Race”? 1024 737 Abbie Roth

Researchers have shown that babies of color are just as likely to experience bias as adults of color. But very young children don’t interpret that experience in the same way as older children.

“Children become aware of differences in physical characteristics of human beings when they are 3 years old. They notice differences in sex (male vs female) height, weight, hair texture, skin color and so on. These differences in physical characteristics are all normal human variations, and by age 3, children are aware of them,” says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, MD, MPH, attending physician in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital.

By age 4, children are aware of the social construct of race. They begin to recognize their own racial group and those of others. Depending on home and community experiences, they may start to discriminate between certain human variations in selecting playmates.

“Children at 4 years of age are still in an early stage of racial identity development, where children of color tend to relate more to the dominant culture – in the United States, white American culture – rather than their own culture. This is called the “Pre-encounter Phase of Racial Identity Development for children of color,” Dr. Spinks-Franklin explains.

Children at age 9 years become aware of their racial groups’ status within larger society. For children of color, this is called the Encounter phase. By this age, children are aware if their group is treated unfairly or differently – or if their group is in a position of power. The Encounter phase is a big developmental leap because it occurs during many other aspects of identity development – including gender identity development.

Dr. Spinks-Franklin shares how this overlapping phase of identity development can contribute to conflicts: Around age 9, boys who identify as male will see their fathers and the men in their lives as “superman.” They’ll start to challenge female authority – mothers and teachers. Now, imagine that the male student of color challenges the authority of a white female teacher – will his behaviors be viewed and addressed as developmentally appropriate or as aggressive and threatening?

These phases in the development of racial identity and in childhood development can contribute to biases and are important reminders that children are not motivated in the same way adults are. Appropriate responses to children and appropriate supports against racial bias should consider a child’s developmental stage.

About the author

Abbie Roth, MWC, is a passionate communicator of science. As the managing editor for science communication at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, she shares stories about innovative research and discovery with audiences ranging from parents to preeminent researchers and leaders. Before coming to Nationwide Children’s, Abbie used her communication skills to engage audiences with a wide variety of science topics. As a subject-matter expert, she developed content for science education materials for McGraw-Hill Education, bringing science concepts to life for middle and high school aged students. She also provided technical editing for manuscripts spanning the American Chemical Society journal portfolio, in addition to serving as production lead for ACS Synthetic Biology. Abbie earned her BS in Life Sciences at Otterbein University while working at the Tan & Cardinal newspaper and minoring in Public Relations. She is a Medical Writer Certified®, credentialed by the American Medical Writers Association.