Talking to children about race and stereotypes is often considered an important step in preparing children for a multiethnic word, but a recent study in Child Development finds that it can also backfire.
Children who have greater stereotype consciousness were more likely to attribute actions in story boards to discrimination, the study reports. African American and Latino students with greater stereotype consciousness also performed more poorly on a working memory test when it was described as being a test of ability than children with less stereotype consciousness. A task of counting digits forward and backward was described to students as either a diagnostic test of ability or as a task that would help adults understand how children learn.
The researchers attributed the decrease in performance for children with greater stereotype consciousness to an effect of “stereotype threat.” “Stereotype threat theory holds that when individuals become concerned about being judged on the basis of a self-relevant stereotype, they can behave in a manner that is consistent with the stereotype,” the researchers write.
For the study, parents of 124 children ages 5-11 completed a 44-item Racial Socialization Questionnaire and a 73-item Parenting Styles Questionnaire. Children were also read 11 statement to gauge their exposure to discrimination. As children get older they all become aware of stereotypes. This study examined the stereotype consciousness before it has formed in most children.
“A key premise of stereotype threat theory is that concern about confirming others’ stereotypes initiates a cascade of events leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the authors write.
“Developmental Antecedents and Social and Academic Consequences of Stereotype-Consciousness in Middle Childhood” by Charles McKown and Michael Strambler, Child Development, December 2009, Volume 80, Number 6, pps. 1643-1659.