The “Bloom and Buzz”
The Clark Doll Study showed that children as young as three, who were still mastering the abilities to talk and walk, already held powerful notions about race. Both Black and White children were more likely to attribute positive qualities (i.e., intelligence, goodness) to White dolls, conversely attributing negative characteristics to Black dolls (Clark & Clark, 1940). What this study suggests is that children are not colorblind. They easily perceive differences and are deeply affected by the cultural messages communicated about these differences (via parents, media, etc.). Moreover, these beliefs affect the way that children view the world—the narrative through which they perceived themselves and others. Racism continues to have major ramifications in our world, and this has led to the need for individuals to actively resist the influence of racism in our current society through the practice of antiracism. In pursuit of this, one may chose to to view the issue of racism through the lense of cognitive development, which ultimately seeks to identify how we might shape children so that they grow to be better (i.e., anti-racist) adults.
What is it, exactly, that shapes a person? It is a question psychology has pondered for centuries, though only recently have psychologists begun to explore it. In doing so, the field of cognitive psychology has extended far beyond assumptions of the past, ones that inaccurately portrayed the mind first as a ‘tabula rasa’, then as a supercomputer (Gopnik, Meltzoff & Kuhl, 1999). The old debate, nature vs nurture, is no longer a central question of cognitive development. Instead, emphasis is devoted to the concept of nature via nurture, and how biological predispositions work together with external forces to shape human beliefs and world views (Kleinknecht, [Lecture on Nature via Nurture], 2020). This essay focuses specifically on how interactions between these two causal forces of development (i.e., nature and nurture) shape one’s beliefs about equality, equity, and fairness. Additionally, it seeks to address the issue of racism by proposing possible methods of cultivating antiracist perspectives in children, so that they might be used by parents and parental figures in child rearing.
Before there was cognitive psychology, there was the philosophy that the infant mind was a tabula rasa, or “blank slate”. John Lock proposed that babies were born helpless with no prior knowledge, and only through experiences were they able to gather knowledge and perceptual skills. Later, in the 1800s, Psychologist William James contributed to this view, labeling perception for babies as “blooming buzzing confusion” (Keil, 2014, p.3). In other words, humans only know what they are taught, and would otherwise fail to make sense to make sense of the ‘buzzing confusion’ that surrounds them. In the context of racism, this historical notion implies that babies are entirely passive to the racist ideas communicated through their environment and upbringing. Considering the doll study and the evidence of how racism can infiltrate the minds of children in the earliest years of life, this ‘blank slate’ philosophy proves problematic. While it is true that much of our knowledge is gained through experience, many philosophers and psychologists believed this theory to be incomplete.
Fortunately, modern research provides new insights into the true capabilities of the infant mind. When research began to see the value in studying babies (they are after all, future adults), investigators found countless examples of baby superpowers: instincts and learning mechanisms that make babies prime candidates for survival in their social and physical world. Among these are common phenomena such as the ability to latch on to a mother’s breast, but babies also demonstrate more advanced behavior, such as an aversion to potentially poisonous plants, and even some basic swimming abilities (BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2015). Perhaps the most impressive superpower of all is the mechanism for language, miraculously allowing babies to take sound symbols and apply them to the physical world (Kleinknecht, [Lecture on Nature via Nurture], 2020). Of course, babies are not born with speech right away. Instead they are born with the genetic potential for communication, just as they are born with the potential for other necessities of human life.
Communication is how we connect with others throughout our lives, and the earliest form of communication that comes from infants is crying (Keens-Soper, 2014). Crying is a baby’s direct way to express their wants and needs. If they are hungry or tired, they will most likely cry in hope that their caregiver will fulfill their needs (Keens-Soper, 2014). Communication is also how we learn to understand others, and we can develop beliefs and opinions through interacting with others. As babies grow, they learn to communicate through language and words. Therefore, narrative is powerful when shaping the understanding of cultures and racial bias. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Ted Talk “the Danger of a Single Story,” she discusses how words can teach people to think a certain way and make biased judgements (Adichie, 2009). Meaning making happens through narrative. Telling only one story about a certain culture or group of people causes assumptions to be made and stereotypes (Adichie, 2009). For example, Western literature of Africa depicts the people as poor, uneducated, and in need of much help. Children at a young age hearing this story may develop stereotypes of all African people being this way (Adichie, 2009). This causes a biased assumption. Children should be raised sharing multiple narratives of positivity and equality to avoid the development of these racial and cultural biases. Notably, meaning making through narrative happens when parents chat with babies and children, and caregivers read stories (Adichie, 2009). A way to raise anti-racist children is to have open chats and answer questions, as well as continuing to read and tell stories of different cultures.
Additionally, language is considered responsible for ‘the co-creation of person and culture’ and indeed, it is through narratives that people can create—and change—cultural realities. In childhood, the power of narrative is prominent from the ages of two or three, already sharing simple, yet significant experiences (e.g., getting a shot, going to a birthday party, etc.). While the prominence of storytelling in early childhood is the same across cultures, studies show that the kinds of stories told differ based on cultural values and beliefs (Miller, Fung & Koven, 2007). Culture affects the narrative we create, and as the Clark Doll Studies demonstrate, the racist ideas ingrained in our culture do too. Our narratives are inevitably tainted by racism. Because of this, we are still in need of a new narrative, and we can build this narrative by offering our children more than one story. Incorporating a diverse body of literature, movies, and television programs is beneficial, as is exposure to a diverse body of people. Through this exposure, children will be able to see that single stories are not true. Three year olds will learn to view people as they are, and will see similarities where there were once only differences.
Because the narratives that come from children’s surrounding environments are so powerful, nurture is highly important when striving to raise antiracist children. A child’s ecological surroundings have the capability to shape beliefs and judgement. Specifically, using the bio-ecological systems theory, the mesosystem and macrosystem surrounding a child plays a major role in development of beliefs. The mesosystem includes parents, caregivers, siblings, teachers, etc., while the macrosystem encompasses the culture that the child is raised in (Kleinknect, Personal Communication, 2020). To avoid bias, a child should have the resources within these systems that support inclusion of all people and cultures.
Furthermore, Lev Vygotsky believed that when explaining cognitive growth in children, adults play a crucial role in what a child learns and knows (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl 1999). Parents especially are a tool that children use to gain knowledge and problem solve. Children use adults to discover the particularities of their culture and society (Gopnik, 1999). However, sometimes unconsciously, adults will adjust their behavior and leave out some truth in what they tell children about society (Gopnik, 1999). This most likely happens when adults find the subject related to society uncomfortable to discuss. Racism is a touchy subject for many, and parents have the job of answering questions from their children about the subject openly and honestly. As a caregiver, being honest is a powerful way to address that racism does exist within society. Adults can explain that within our society it is our duty to avoid these biases, learn and educate ourselves on others cultures, and speak out against injustice when necessary.
Child development is one of the most complex phenomena that exists in our world today. From the beginning, you have a natural set path of basic development with the whole concept of nature. Then with nurture, personalization gets presented. With this being said, concepts such as language and narratives can be a great positive, but also can introduce biases and racism. Parents and caregivers must use this knowledge to take necessary steps in raising antiracist children. To fully eliminate racism and all the other isms, we have to incorporate diversity at birth of the child because they start learning before we even realize.
From Perception to Cognition
As a child grows, everything they see, hear, and feel impacts their cognitive development. The human cognitive infrastructure is put together at an early time period of a child’s life. During this time period, biases, and isms such as racism can slip through the cracks and stick with a child for the rest of their life. Children have the ability to shape their own beliefs, and the sensations within their environment can potentially cause harm in developing biases. These sensations are taken in from a child’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses. Once a child takes in these sensations, then forms and retains them as perceptions, they become a part of their cognition going forward (Keil Ch.3, 2013). The science behind turning perceptions into cognition is rather simple. These sensations and signals are received in one’s central nervous system. The signals are then organized into meaningful ‘sets’. For example, one of the first ways children combine signals into meaningful experiences is through facial perception. These sets are then organized into categories and concepts, where babies can label certain faces as “mom” or “dad” (Keil Ch.3, 2013).
Concept formation is guided by a little bit of nature and a lot of nurture. Nature sets the stage of development. It consists of all innate patterns and “inner wiring” of a child’s cognition. As synaptogenesis proceeds, sensory systems become increasingly responsive to environmental signals (Keil Ch. 3, 2013). Nurture then writes the script and separates children and their own personal development. A child’s social environment plays a crucial role in their development as well. Parents and caregivers decide what information to provide the children with, and if they display biased behavior, then that behavior is more likely to become a part of their child’s cognition. This is also where synapses form and habits develop, perceptual narrowing occurs, and where preference for familiar stimuli sets in (Keil Ch. 3, 2013).
Vision is particularly important to cognition and it is one of the first senses to develop among infants. Though the biological processes associated with vision unfold in a predictable manner, our experiences specialize the way we perceive the world, causing variation. With vision, babies start out preferring faces and anything symmetrical. Then as visual experiences are repeated they form patterns and this initiates the development of their face schema. These patterns become concepts to them, which then leads them to have expectations going forward. If a child is only seeing one race all of the time, then it is likely they are going to believe that one race is “normal” or “aesthetically pleasing” while every other race is perceived as ‘different’. For instance, Kelly et al., (2005) Found that while newborns are unbiased, three-month-olds prefer faces of their own race as opposed to other races.
A child’s verbal development is also greatly influenced by exogenous forces. An example of this is child directed speech, primarily from parents and caregivers. Verbal and visual elements combine (via intermodal matching) which enables perception to become cognition with the help of language. Joint visual attention between child and caregiver also helps enable a child to internalize and understand information (Keil Ch.3, 2013). For example, an adult may draw a child’s attention to an object via gesture and then name it. The child then follows the guidance of the adult, activating their brain and connecting the name to the object itself.
In the Audition aspect of perception, universal preferences do exist. Babies start out preferring their mother’s voice along with other high pitches and music. As they get older, their auditory perceptions, like their other senses, start to narrow as synaptic pruning occurs. They accumulate repeated (i.e, significant) sounds and lose the ability to detect sounds that are not culturally relevant to their sound schema. For example, if a child is growing up around racist or biased remarks then it will naturally become a part of their vocabulary. Given the way infants rapidly consume and internalize signals from their environment, the best way to combat racism at this stage is by ensuring children are exposed to an enriching, culturally diverse environment.
As the senses develop, so too does language. In the first eight months of life, auditory development progresses in infants who already show preferences for melodic, language sounds. It is this, combined with the development of vision that initiates the process of language development. At 4 months, Infants already begin to combine sounds (e.g., a steady beat) with a perceived motion (e.g., someone banging on a drum), a process known as inter-sensory integration, or intermodal matching. Fast-forward eight more months, and most infants will begin to utter simple holophrases, such as “up” or “no” at the early age of two. This is an impressive feat for babies, who were essentially helpless in their environment a few short months prior. Now, as language develops, they possess the ability to symbolically represent the signals perceived from the external world. At the three-year mark, without being explicitly taught, children are already advanced language users. How exactly does this process occur? And what role does it play in the development of cognition?
Many theories have attempted to answer these questions. During the era of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner proposed that reward and ‘reinforcement’ from parenting was responsible for the acquisition of language. However, we soon realized that language was much more complex than this. The acquisition of language is in fact so complex that no computer has successfully mastered its nuances. Even fully developed adults, despite years of studying, struggle to speak foreign languages properly and will never sound like a true native speaker. And yet, babies master languages at an astonishing rate. These observations conflict with Skinner’s theory, and the idea that reinforcers were responsible for babies’ rapid learning curve was deemed “mathematically impossible” by his intellectual rival Noam Chomsky (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Chomsky was one of the first to dismiss behaviorist explanations for language development, observing that parents were more likely to focus on meaning than grammatical reinforcement (Keil, 2013, p. 269 & 272). Instead, he argued the existence of an innate acquisition device and developed the universal grammar theory, which is still relevant in the nativist realm.
Still, recent research offers another theory, one that is perhaps more parsimonious. Led by Professor Patricia Khul, the concept of Bayesian inference (i.e., statistical learning) is widely recognized as the most promising explanation for language development to date. Rather than a universal grammar, Statistical learning theory suggests that babies possess the neurological registration of language frequencies. Essentially, humans are born with a system that ‘takes statistics’ on the language sounds in their environment, and are able to deduce which phonemes (i.e., basic language units) are used most often in their specific cultural context. For the first six months of life, infants possess the unique ability to distinguish between phonemes from every language in the world, an ability that disappears as we get older (Kuhl, 2010). This marks that there is a critical period for language development, with natural language ability declining significantly after the age of seven. (Kuhl, 2010; Keil, 2013, p. 281). As synapses are pruned and the brain grows accustomed to its environment and cultural expectations, we lose the unnecessary flexibility. In fact, after the first year of life, babies are already beginning their transition toward being ‘culture-bound learners’ (Kuhl, 2010).
Though the particular language a child learns to speak is culturally determined, the need for language itself is universal. We enter the world equipped with a natural sensitivity to prosody and a statistical system to meet our biological needs. Of course, language is necessary for communication purposes, but it is also believed to organize our thinking and to aid in abstraction. Linguistic relativity refers to the idea that language frames the way we think, and indeed, it is often language that cues what information comes to mind (Keil, 2013, p. 290). Renowned psychologist Lev Vygotsky went as far to say that the internalization of language is what liberates children from being bound to the concrete, and that without it, they would be incapable of thinking abstractly. Many researchers since Vygotsky have found that language does provide support to childrens’ ability to focus their attention and combine different domains of thought in ‘novel ways’ (Keil, 2013, p. 293). Essentially, language is responsible for taking what is in our heads and attributing meaning to it, including the meaning of socially constructed differences, or ‘race’. Thus, language is a powerful tool that enhances our ability to conceptualize information. Unfortunately, these concepts are affected by racism and the labels we use to simplify others. It is important as parents or caregivers to be deliberate with word choice around developing toddlers, who use language to further transform their cognition.
From an early age, children spend much time learning to understand the world around them. Because of this, a child’s lived experiences strongly affect what they learn. Caregivers play a highly important role in children’s learning experiences. According to Jean Piaget, children should grow up in an educationally enriched environment to develop intelligence and skills (Keil Ch. 5, 2013). Piaget was an empiricist who viewed cognition as problem solving skills that children develop to make sense of the world. This involves a figurative aspect in which children make symbolic copies of their experiences and form mental images for learning, and an operative aspect in which children manipulate those copies of experiences and establish schemes (Keil Ch.5, 2013). A scheme describes a child’s pattern of interacting with the environment (Keil Ch.5, 2013). Because children do so much learning from lived experiences, any biases displayed within their surrounding cultural environment may be internalized.
Additionally, the most modern and popular cognitive learning perspective is explained by Laura Schultz, which expands on Piaget’s theory that children are constantly learning from the environment that surrounds them. Schultz highlighted that children have built in processes to help them learn and problem solve, and what they learn/internalize comes from their environment (Schultz, 2015). The choices that children make depends on the evidence that they observe, and they then take mental statistics to help them mimic others and solve problems (Schultz, 2015). If this is true, then a child’s nurture and ecological surroundings plays a crucial role in what they believe. Caregivers have the power to shape anti-racist beliefs in children by demonstrating anti-racist behavior themselves. If children are surrounded by caregivers who engage in anti-racist practices, participate in anti-racist movements, and openly discuss negative biases and why we should avoid them, they will internalize this behavior and be less likely to develop their own negative biases towards groups of people.
Furthermore, caregivers are utilized as a tool for children to gain knowledge and problem solve, and because of this they are the main source of preventing cultural/racial biases developing within children. Children are not colorblind, and socially categorize groups of people to make sense of the social world. Rhodes et al., (2018) looks at how the use of generic language (e.g., ‘they’, ‘them’) causes young toddlers to form arbitrary categories based on perceivable features (i.e., color). From analyzing theories from empirical psychologists, a recommendation to caregivers would be to provide an educationally enriched environment for children that addresses the issues of cultural biases as well as answering children’s questions about race and culture openly and honestly. Though they may want to teach children about different ‘kinds’ of things, it is imperative that caregivers avoid the use of generic language when teaching toddlers about others, as this will result in stereotyping (Rhodes, Bianchi, Chalick, & Leslie, 2018). Hearing narratives about different ethnicities and cultures would also help children in understanding differences and avoiding biases. Because children are constantly learning and adapting to the world around them, their environment and the guidance they recieve are the most important tools to help them learn how to be anti-racist.
Child development may be different depending on the child’s lived experiences. Through the concept of nature, every child is given the foundation to develop. Then with nurture, one’s environment and experiences start to personalize every child into shaping their own beliefs. A child’s perception takes into account all sensations, then processes them to be a part of their cognition going forward. Language acquisition comes into play because it is the most important foundation for communication and teachings. Communicating positive narratives of diversity teachings is highly important for raising anti-racist children. However, perceptions and language acquisition is truly determined by a child’s lived experiences. Parents and caregivers play the most important role in cognitive development. Racism is a prevalent and seemingly never ending issue in our society. If we want to truly address and change it, we have to act by confronting biases, and providing youth with the tools to be anti-racist.
Shaping the Narrative: How to Raise Antiracist Children
Today it is known that brain development (i.e., nature) provides the opportunity for cognitive growth; however, age does not guarantee that everyone will evolve beyond the naive state of mind. Similarly, it does not guarantee that one will develop an anti-racist social framework. The component of nurture, as discussed previously, is especially important in a child’s development and understanding of the social world. For instance, research shows that while there are developmental milestones in childrens’ abilities to understand the thinking of others, biological opportunity must be met with experience in order for development to reach its full potential. Modern empiricist Rebecca Saxe has conducted a series of studies on the RTPJ, a small brain region that plays a role in interpreting others and making ‘fair’ or moral judgements. When examining this region in adults, she found that those with high activity in the RTPJ were more likely to consider the thinking and intentions of others when facing a moral dilemma (Saxe, 2009). This discrepancy between adults in RTPJ activity is evidence that development does not simply unfold. Instead, the brain interacts with its environment–along with parents, teachers, and caregivers–and behind all of these interactions is the influence of culture. With the popularization of empiricist theories like ‘baby-stats’, more people have begun to look at the impact of culture and childrearing on cognitive development, and how these may lead to the development of fairness, open-mindedness, and inclusivity.
Notably, a child’s environment and cultural experiences should always be considered when studying cognitive development. We know this because of Lev Vygotsky’s discoveries. Vygotsky was a cognitive psychologist who believed that cognition is situated within a cultural context (Keil ch.9, 2013). Today, many modern developmental scientists have expanded off of his framework. He developed a sociocultural theory which has been analyzed and developed throughout time. His findings can help us determine ways to raise children without racism, by focusing on their ecological surroundings and what exogenous forces are influencing their beliefs and values. Before Vygotsky, Jean Piaget had attempted to answer questions of cognitive development by arguing that children are active learners within their environment, and have built in intelligence systems to help them make copies of their lived experiences and develop schemas (Keil ch.9, 2013). However, what Piaget failed to acknowledge is that not all children’s lived experiences are the same. Vygotsky incorporated cultural differences into his learning theory, and we now know how important this is. External forces have a degree of control over a child’s experiences, which means that children are learning from the “outside in.”
Vygotsky also discovered that a child’s social framework guides their learning and beliefs. This means that anti-racist behavior can be learned through socialization. Yet in contrast, these biases can be learned as well. Cognitive growth happens through communication and sociocultural exchange (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020) which suggests that people who guide learning (e.g., caregivers, family members, teachers) communicate through social interactions with children and therefore help children internalize the outer world surrounding them. Social interactions often mediate a child’s interactions with the environment (Keil Ch.9, 2013). Specifically, cognition is the process of communication and transformation that results in the internalization of the external world (Kleinknect, personal communication, 2020). Because of this, who children are socially interacting with will heavily influence their beliefs and values. One of the most effective ways to raise anti-racist children would be for outside communicators (e.g., parents) to openly communicate to children about cultural differences, and the problems of racism surrounding our culture. They would then need to teach children strategies to avoid biases, and how to contribute to promoting equality and anti-racist behavior within society.
Many years after his death, the work of Lev Vygotsky has revolutionized the way we understand and study the developing human brain. Part of his legacy includes the increasing amount of sociocultural research such as the work of Nelson and Fivush, who devised the modern socio-cultural theory of memory. Instead of studying children in artificial scenarios like Piaget, Nelson and Fivush observed autobiographical memory development through natural interactions between children and mature members of society (e.g., mothers). This work has revealed important patterns in the way mature members such as mothers cue and direct the attention of less mature members. One study which observed mother-child interactions in a museum setting found that objects not verbally acknowledged by both mother and child in their discussion could not be recalled later by three-year-olds (Tessler & Nelson, 1994, p. 311). Thus, children at this age are incapable of forming autobiographical memories independently. There is the need for both joint attention (of child and mother) on the object as well as a mutual verbal acknowledgement, which explains why children do not appear to form autobiographical memories at all prior to the age of three, when language skills are insufficient (Tessler & Nelson, 1994, p. 311; Nelson & Fivush, 2004, p. 573). Not only do adults use language to direct childrens’ attention, but also to construct the general frame or narrative of these episodic experiences. From three until the end of preschool age, children will rely on others to structure events into cohesive stories–and also to rehearse these stories in the form of reminiscing so that they become firmly established autobiographical memories.
These narratives that are passed down from the mature members to the child are, of course, influenced by the cultural environment these interactions operate within. For instance, differences are found across cultures in parent reminiscing style. Western cultures tend to have more elaborative and emotional styles than that of their Eastern counterparts. This is likely due to the value of individualism and self-definition, whereas Eastern cultures focus on the collective aspects of experiences (Nelson & Fivush, 2004, p. 576). These cultural values signify the importance of personal details and emotion in the West; thus, these are included in one’s autobiographical framework. As a result, children in Western cultures tend to possess more detailed autobiographical memories than children in the East (Nelson & Fivush, 2004, p. 576).
Brain development (i.e., nature) and episodic experiences (i.e., nurture) all happen at once, and mothers and other mature members are the guides for these interactions, writing the cultural ‘script’ and passing it down using the incredible organizational tool of language. In these interactions, a ‘shared self’ is formed first, which is why autobiographical memory is said to be ‘co-constructed’. As time goes on, children internalize this framework and develop an identity of their own. This is the function of autobiographical memory–to establish a shared identity and eventually establish the self in relation to others (Nelson & Fivush, 2004, p. 577). While this is a beneficial and necessary process, problems arise when negative aspects of culture, such as racism, become a part of the framework that is passed down.
The insights generated by this research have led to educational developments which apply Vygotsky’s socio-cultural perspective in teaching. These new practices have shown impressive improvements in executive functioning, which raises skepticism of traditional school systems in the U.S. For instance, Vygotsky’s theory acknowledges the fact that to reach a higher level of development, children rely on the guidance of mature members to help them move through their ‘zones of proximal development’ with appropriate challenge and support. In this way, adults ‘scaffold’ child development by posing challenges or lessons that guide the child further in their development than they would individually (Keil, 2014, p. 338). At the same time, ‘levels’ must be assigned appropriately so that children are not attempting impossible tasks. Research shows that by accomplishing appropriate tasks that feed children’s sense of self-efficacy, children are able to feel genuinely competent in their learning, even more than if they were showered with verbal praise (Keil, 2014, p. 477). Simply feeding children ‘correct’ information is a detriment to their learning.
The ‘Tools of the Mind’ preschool program, inspired by Vygotsky’s idea of mental ‘tools’, is another example of how to better facilitate the cognitive growth of children in the education system (Diamond, 2009). Instead of spending time and energy asking children to memorize content in an unnatural manner (e.g., reciting the alphabet in an arbitrary order), ‘Tools of the Mind’ suggests we ought to be teaching children cognitive tools so that they are equipped to handle information. This process encourages children to learn gradually (via scaffolding) as they play, read, and make music with others in a natural way. In this program children have more freedom; however, they are held accountable by creating a daily ‘play-plan’ that they are encouraged to follow-through. Practice with planning and follow-through is one reason why ‘Tools of the Mind’ improves executive functions such as inhibition and working memory. Additionally, children who attend the program demonstrate increased cognitive flexibility, as they grow their ability to see different perspectives. In the typical educational system, children are presented with information as if it is factual, when really information is more complex and malleable. ‘Tools of the Mind’ lets children engage in imaginative play where they must constantly adjust their story to meet others’, enhancing their understanding of symbolism and perspective. Ultimately, this form of learning presents opportunities for children to acquire tools and meaning as they interact with others, establishing a cultural frame similar to the one established by parents.
Additionally, to help children make sense of the world and understand things more clearly, it is common for them to create mental categories to help them socially organize people and reduce complexity (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). This is called social essentialism. These categories are usually determined by the child’s social framework. Though this often helps children understand and engage with the world around them, it can also cause mental biases to emerge towards certain groups of people. Categorization is essential in helping children learn and understand what certain things are (e.g., types of animals) and how the world works, yet it is important that caregivers know when to address essentialism so that it does not result in social biases. The best way to do this, would be via dialectical interactions. Parents play a major role in establishing these interactions and encouraging children to avoid grouping people socially and with unintentional bias. Essentialism provides intuitive, but often incorrect beliefs about people and how the world works (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). Though we can’t separate culture from cognition, we can mediate and teach children equality and to acknowledge people’s differences without forming negative stereotypes and opinions. Through teaching practices like those used in ‘Tools of the Mind’, we can also promote cognitive flexibility in children, so that they are less likely to place others in static, essentialist categories.
Children develop their own theories from immersion in the natural and social environment, and knowledge is constructed as children participate in mediated conversational exchanges (Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Because of this, parents have power to help children construct knowledge and beliefs. Social essentialism does reflect a lack of cognitive flexibility, and understanding when to challenge essentialist behavior is important for parents to successfully avoid “isms” developing in children. During preschool, categories are essential for children to make sense of their environment because they lack cognitive flexibility, and have limited brain space. Throughout childhood, cognitive flexibility increases and children become aware that categories are not rigid but flexible. During adolescence, ability to recognize fluidity increases with experience. Acknowledging cognitive differences, parents should mediate and use natural conversation to appropriately challenge essentialism when it comes across. Social Essentialism is the root to stereotyping and prejudice, so understanding how to mediate it will help parents to raise inclusive children who are anti-racist.
From Vygotsky’s past work, his sociocultural legacy, and research on social essentialism, we understand that culture and social interaction strongly influence the development of unintentional biases and racism. Since essentialism is the root of prejudice and racism, it is the most important factor to manage. Parents must follow recommended steps and acknowledge that lived experience, culture, and learning environments do influence children’s beliefs.
Moreover, caregivers must acknowledge that these exogenous influences affect children as soon as they enter the world, as they are biologically predisposed to internalize and adapt to their environment. It is because of this natural component, coupled with the powerful influences of culture and childrearing, that children develop dangerous notions about race such as those discovered in the Clark Doll Study (Clark & Clark, 1940). It is also through this ‘nature via nurture’ dynamic that we can actively unravel these prejudiced schemas, and ultimately, we as parents, caregivers, and mature members have the power to raise a new generation of bias-free anti-racist children within our society. In pursuit of raising an antiracist child and contributing to the greater culture of antiracism, we suggest the following checklist:
- Beginning at infancy, share a diverse body of books and movies with your children to establish a narrative of inclusion early on, and avoid teaching them ‘single-stories’ about others.
- Promote socialization during infancy, when children are pruning and adapting to their perceived environment. Broadening your infants social circle to include neighbors, daycare workers, and playmates will increase their number of diverse encounters.
- Avoid using generic labels toward people, particularly during the toddler years when language and meaning are especially relevant to one’s cognitive development.
- When the opportunity arises, point out offensive, racially-charged, language or scenes in your child’s environment. Use these instances to educate your child on race, and to emphasize the individuality of others.
- Do not avoid or neglect questions about race, as children are not colorblind (nor are they blind to awkwardness or discomfort). Treat these as educational opportunities for the both of you, and discuss them naturally (via dialectical).
- Identify your child’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, teaching them about race in a manner that is both challenging and age-appropriate.
- Encourage school-aged children to engage in sociodramatic play, to practice balancing the perspectives of others and promote cognitive flexibility.
- Consider enrolling your child in programs similar to ‘Tools of the Mind’ where Vygotsky’s sociocultural research is employed to improve executive functioning.
About the Authors
Hi I’m Kayla! I’m from Hillsboro OR, and am a senior and Psychology major at Pacific. After graduating, I plan on furthering my education in hopes of becoming a youth counselor while continuing to advocate for anti racism.
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