development of prejudice in children, The

development of prejudice in children, The

Bergen, Timothy J Jr

Prejudice is a negative feeling toward a group based on a faulty definition. The family affects prejudice through modeling. Models have their most powerful influence on children below the ages of 7 or 8. Early in their preschool years children can define their race and other physical, mental or ethnic categories. Preschool children show bias in favor of their own sex, favor classmates over unfamiliar children, choose more negative adjectives to describe others and often show bias toward other ethnic groups. The child can become prejudiced by adopting the biases and attitudes of the family and by living in an environment that fosters prejudice. There is also a moral aspect of prejudice and prejudice may decline as the child is advancing to the next stages of cognitive development while in elementary school. Prejudice is not instinctive. Prejudice is taught directly or the child learns it through verbal and non- verbal messages.


Being down on something you are not up on. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support. And so goes the popular vein. The academic definition is a little different: a negative feeling toward a group based on a faulty generalization (Pettigrew, 1980). While the popular conception talks about cognition, the academic adds the affective domain the world of attitudes. Three dimensions seem clear: (1) a cognitive component that is faulty and irrational; (2) a negative affective component; and (3) one based on the other. Prejudice is irrational because the information it is based on is inaccurate or insufficient to serve as an objective basis for any valid conclusion. We assume that what may be true about the whole is also true about each of the parts. We fail to make necessary qualifications or differentiations. Driven by the natural need to classify incoming information (otherwise we could not think) in order to render the world meaningful, we blow it. We classify stimuli into sets, overestimate the similarities among the members within a set, and overestimate the differences among the members of different sets. The result is d world view of sets existing apart from each other. No part of A is B, and no part of B is A. They just exclude each other. To the prejudiced person reality is separateness, differences, incompatibility, dissonance. In some areas of life there are no concentric sets with a common area. Men are different from women.And the two shall never meet. Blacks are blacks. Latinos are Latinos. Neither is white. And that is the way it is. Irrational thinking in prejudice constitutes the rationale for prejudicial attitudes: apprehension of outgroups, distrust, fear, discomfort. Although not necessarily so, these attitudes easily translate into behavior based on prejudice; avoidance, withdrawal, verbal hostility, individual acts of unfairness, physical attacks and ultimately, genocide. Prejudice is not something we do. That is discrimination. It is something we think and feel. We are not prejudiced because we are evil but because we are human and it is easy to fall into it. The infrastructure of prejudice is not moral depravity, but our regular thinking mechanism that just went wrong. The prejudiced child uses the same schemata for justifying prejudice and thinking about it as the child uses for thinking and justifying anything else. So it is with adults. And so it is with children (Pettigrew, 1980).

On Prejudice as Learned

Prejudice is learned. If there is a role for genetics, this role is not clear. Since it is difficult to isolate these two dimensions for the purpose of research, we may never know. Comprehensive reviews of the literature on the origins of prejudice in children have concluded that very little is DNA related (Aboud, 1988). While psychologists talk about the prejudiced personality, its development is explained almost exclusively in environmental terms (Allport, 1958; Dovido & Gaertner, 1986; Lynch, 1987; Katz & Taylor, 1988; Bar-Tel et al, 1989). However, some cognitive schemata associated with prejudice, such as “dichotomic thinking,” may be more influenced by heredity. Perhaps. Both Piaget and Kohlberg conceive their developmental stages as being “natural.” But it is not clear if they mean inborn, or partially inborn and partially environmental. The seemingly universal discomfort of very young children toward strangers has also been cited as an example of an inborn predisposition toward the initial stages of prejudice (Allport, 1958). However, prejudice appears to be an environmental issue and is treated as such.

On Ingroups

The same environment that welcomes the child into this world supplies the fertile soil for the development of prejudice. The family becomes a part of the new child and the child becomes a part of it. Within this setting, the concept of group develops. Prior to the age of three, normal children already know “this is my group,” “it is a good group,” “I like to be with them,” “I enjoy doing the things they do.” In Allport’s words, “children have found people lock-stitched into the very fabric of their existence”(Allport, 1958). Both child and family become “we.” Thus the ingroup is born. By age three there is already group identification. These are the people children are loyal to. The child is so much a part of them that the self could not be itself apart from the family. Children may be unhappy with events of persons at home, but home is all they have. Without the family they cease to exist as individuals because they are the ingroup. Their attachment is basic to human life. Without it the child cannot live. It also goes from family to child. In every society the child is regarded as a member of the parent’s group, (Allport, 1958) and is normally expected to assume the patterns of thinking and codes of behavior of the parents, as well as share the manner in which the family is treated by the larger group. The family’s social handicaps are the child’s handicaps. Although it happens, it is not often that a child by the age of five will repudiate the ingroup and aspire to be a member of another. Later in life other ingroups will arise and the child’s allegiance may shift, but during the pre-school years, a lot of the child’s identity is tied up with the family. It is ironic that something as basic as this attachment can provide the right soil for the development of prejudice.

On Modeling

One significant way in which the family affects prejudice is through modeling. Children can learn to behave largely through observation and imitation of models. If models behave in an accepting and respectful way toward others, children are more likely to do so themselves. Models seem to exert their more powerful effects on children below the ages of 7 or 8 (Lipscomb, 1985). The perfect cross-cultural model is the one who: (1) accepts as natural occurrences obvious physical differences among people without dwelling on them or making them the basis for their judgement; (2) treats everyone fairly and equitably; (3) helps and states how important it is to do so, and encourages the child to do the same. By 7 to 9 years of age children can spontaneously verbalize the rule to follow when interacting with “others.” So they act accordingly even if the rule is not modeled. In contrast, younger children are still formulating the rule and finding out under which conditions they should apply it. Thus they look to adult models for information about where, when, and what types of behavior are appropriate. Not all models affect children’s willingness to imitate their behavior. Being warm and affectionate has more effect than being cool and aloof. Having a warm and affectionate relationship with at least one parent is more likely to produce modeled behavior. Whichever parent the child sees as powerful will serve as an effective model because the child wants to be like him or her. Only this way will he or she be .able to be powerful and respected (Bandura, 1986).

On Outgroups

Not too far from the ingroup – the “us” is the out roup – the “them.” In some cases, each is defined in terms of the other. From a very young age, children are aware of strangers. By the age of six months or so, babies usually cry when a stranger picks them up or gets close to them. Even at two or three months a baby usually withdraws and cries if a stranger tries to get close too abruptly. This shyness toward strangers may last well into adolescence. In some cases way beyond that. Of course, strangers do not remain strangers long. After a little while, children get used to them. They have just become familiar. They are no longer “out:’ But as long as strangers keep on being “them” and not “us” they remain out of the child’s comfort zone. Within the ingroup children feel secure. Life is “good.” With strangers, there is suspicion, fear of the unknown, discomfort. Life is “bad.” The “us” is positive and nourishing. The “them: is uncertain, negative and scary. This almost mathematical formula (ingroup::comfort::outgroup::fear) binds the cognitive and affective worlds of the child just as tightly as it does with adults. The thinking process that leads to prejudice is already there, although prejudice may be a little way off.

On Social Grouping

As children mature, they become aware of categorical differences among people. Children can discriminate between male and female picture faces as early as five months of age (Fagan & Shepherd, 1982). A few months later they can match voices to the faces (Poulon-Dubois et al., 1991). By the time they are three years old, most children are able to sort photos on the basis of gender (Weinraub et al., 1984), and to use gender labels for themselves and others accurately (Leinbach & Fagot, 1986). Early in their preschool years (2 years old) children can point accurately to people who are black or white, and define themselves as black or white. This sorting and labeling becomes more accurate during early childhood and extends also to other ethnic categories (Powlishta et al., 1994) and to physical attributes such as weight (White et al., 1985) or mental qualities such as being smart, or religious identity. Slowly but surely the child’s world becomes one of sets. People do not just exist. They exist as part of groups. There is an “us” and a “them.” I have my group. They have their group. My group and their group are not the same. This social categorization is part of growing up in society. As such it has little direct bearing upon prejudice, except that in the process of categorizing it is easy to think of the sets as being really different. The common elements of the “us” and the “them” are somehow lost. Only the differences are real. And so, slowly, a natural cognitive schema that gives the world around us some meaning, becomes the cognitive diving board into prejudice. But that is not all.

On Valuing Outgroups

Social categorization does not stop at dividing the world into contrasting groups. Now the merits of the ingroup and outgroup are compared, and the child makes the decision to think highly or not, to like or not like. While loyalty to the ingroup does not necessarily bring out hatred toward outgroups, often children view members of the ingroup favorably and members of the outgroups with disfavor. The reasoning may go like this: (1) I and my group are good; (2) these other people in that group are very different; and (3) if they are that different, they must be bad. The first reaction at about 2 and a half years of age is curiosity. Also possible is a nebulous sense of inferiority associated with black skin. By the age of four this sense is more prevalent. And outgroups may be seen as bad, weak, ugly, stupid; or worse, weaker, uglier and dumber than my group. So children strongly dislike them or think less of them. Preschool children show strong bias in favor of their own sex when asked to chose playmates (Hayden-Thomson et al., 1987), favor classmates over unfamiliar children for school tasks (Serbin & Sprafkin, 1986), choose more negative adjectives to describe “others” (Powlishta, 1990), and show clear bias toward other ethnic groups (Aboud, 1988). At times. the prejudice is self-directed toward the ingroup, with Black children showing preference for whites over African-Americans (Aboud & Doyle, 1993). Once a person is given a place within a negatively perceived outgroup, he or she is disliked also just because of group membership. This process of identification with one’s group, social categorization, and negative feelings toward others based on the judgment “I’m better, smarter, cleaner…,” is already prejudice. Children are not just ready to jump into the prejudice pool, they are in it (Morland & Suthers, 1980). Not all children, however, apply the same process the same way. That is why some children are prejudiced and others are not. Those who are not still categorized and choose to like or not like. But their categorization is rational: they see differences as well as similarities, they do not see the categories as being totally apart, they allow for individual differences within groups and unifying elements across groups. And if they dislike, they dislike persons, not groups, or persons because of group membership. Selective dislike of an individual based on real or perceived shortcomings is not prejudice (“I hate him. He’s mean.” “Watch. She’ll stab you in the back.”). It is natural dislike of someone.

On the Limits of the Home Environment

As powerful as the home environment is in the development of prejudice, there is no inexorable connection between prejudice and the family. While Piaget accepted that the younger child’s morality was largely a matter of uncritical acceptance of adult prescriptions, he was also the first to argue that all morality is not imposed by the group upon the individual and by the adult upon the child (Piaget, 1932). Instead, as the child understands more how the world works, he is likely to see that rules imposed by parents are flexible and should be changed. At times only one of the parents is prejudiced, and the child “sees” two ways of looking at others. Friends, family members, neighbors, and teachers may well neutralize the effects of bias at home. And so will positive, enjoyable individual experiences involving outgroups. It is easier to neutralize future prejudice before it has developed than to change it in later years when the schemata are fossilized and looking at things “this way” this way is almost second nature (Derman-Sparks et al., 1980).

On How the Home Develops Prejudice

There are two ways for the child to become prejudiced: by directly adopting the attitudes and biases of the home, and indirectly by living in an environment that breeds a prejudiced lifestyle (Allport, 1958). These ways are not “either/or.” Parents who teach children specific biases may also train them to develop the cognitive schemata and feelings that constitute prejudice. The line between being biased against a group and having a biased personality is not clearly defined. Once prejudice starts, it is difficult to know when it will stop. Like a computer virus, it may infiltrate all of the hard disk or just part of it. When children adopt prejudice from their caretakers, they emotionally merge with what parents like or dislike, and simply internalize the parent’s world and make it their own. They can easily pick up signals: words, tones, kinesics. All these are cues eagerly sought and decoded. When prejudice develops as a result of the “right” home atmosphere, parents need not express their specific prejudices. The way they handle their children, the general trust-distrust climate, the caring-uncaring level of interaction, the democratic v. dictatorial type of discipline provides the appropriate environment for group prejudice. A home that is suppressive, harsh or overly critical puts the child on guard. Watch for power. They can hurt me. Someone is not equal here. I cannot trust me to do what is right. I do not trust them. I am afraid. When raw authority dominates human relationships at home, feelings of tolerance, acceptance and well being are alien to the child’s world. So apprehension, distrust, fear, dislike, and hatred become a way of life, and these feelings are easily transferable to other groups. We are almost knocking at the door of prejudice. All it takes now is the application of negative schemata to social groups, and there is prejudice.

On Prejudice as a Moral Issue

There is a moral aspect to prejudice. To do good, to do right, to do what is proper, to do what is expected of us – this is to act morally. To do evil, to do wrong, to do what is improper, to do what we are ordered to refrain from doing – this is to act immorally. How a white child thinks, feels and acts toward a black child or a black child toward a white child is perceived by one as being good or bad by both. In this sense, prejudiced behavior is more than just a social convention or a cognitive misfire. Excluding another child from a birthday party goes beyond social conformity. It is nice and good to invite others. It is not nice to invite “him.” Not inviting others like him is the norm. It is what we should do. It is therefore good. Researchers on moral development, Piaget (1932), Kohlberg (1984), and Damon (1977), place preschool children generally too low on the developmental scale to reach a stage where altruism, differentiation and equality equate moral behavior. Others disagree. Here is a moral dilemma a la Kohlberg. At the onset of prejudice, the child moves through two levels of moral development: the Preconventional and the Conventional, and through four stages. During these first years, solutions are based on unquestioning conformity to social norms. Stage 1: “If I don’t conform, I’ll be punished.” Stage 2: “I’ll still conform; but now it is because I’ll get something in return: I’ll invite him if. . .” Stage 3: “By not inviting him I will be considered a nice, trustworthy, loyal person.” Stage 4: “I cannot invite Blacks to Whites’ parties because if I do, the whole system of getting along will break down.” Thus adherence to the social norm seems to be a guiding principle of what is right. If the child is in an environment where bias and prejudice are the norm, this is what is good. It does not matter that much whether the origin of prejudice lies primarily with the family or with the natural stages of moral development. The two are so closely intertwined that it is most difficult to separate them for the purpose of analysis. What is somewhat disturbing is that to a Stage 4 child who is already prejudiced, who lives in a home where prejudice abounds, bias seems like a means of maintaining a just social world. No where in sight yet is Kohlberg’s moral person: one whose moral choices reflect reasoned and deliberate judgements that ensure justice be accorded each individual (Kohlberg, 1984) or Gilligan’s (1977) passionate concern for the well-being and care of each person. The child is just too young and is not ready to reach such a high level of altruism. But the child can be ready.

On How the Moral Stages of Prejudice Changes

The first stage of Piaget’s moral development (heteronomous = under the authority of another) is about 5 to 10 years of age. Before then, children have little understanding of social rules or the reasons for following them. The Piagetian concept of reciprocity, “treating others as we would want to be treated,” is not present before the age of 5 (Piaget, 1932, 196). Even then children understand reciprocity as “an eye for an eye…” the New Testament interpretation is not present until later in childhood or early adolescence. Thus reciprocity, that could be used to limit prejudice, is not operative in children. But the understanding of rules enter their lives. At 5 or 6 they start having great respect for rules. To them rules are fixed, cannot be changed, are created and handed down by authorities. To break them would be cheating. They are sacred and have existed since the beginning of time. Children feel this way because of: (1) the coercive power of the authority figures; (2) their egocentric philosophy which says that since they see the world in a certain way, all others also see or should see it the same way, therefore there can be no exceptions; and (3) if they break the law they would be punished as certainly as nature punishes violators of the rules of nature. At this stage there is moral absolutism. There is only one correct viewpoint. Everyone automatically adheres to it. ‘While at first how the child feels about “others,” is externally imposed and controlled by direct instruction, supervision, and the rewards and punishments of authority figures, eventually children will internalize principles and rules for acceptance or nonacceptance of “others,” taking over the responsibility for regulating their own principles of interaction. This shift to internalization will allow children to interact with others in an acceptable fashion in the absence of adult monitoring and vigilance. Thus the stage is set for the adoption of relatively permanent general standards that govern the way they think and feel about groups with many people, across many settings, and over a wide variety of situations. At this stage, prejudice needs not be the best “world view” or the accepted way to look at others. By the age of seven or so, children may go beyond a morality based on blind acceptance to authority and the satisfaction of own needs to a higher level based on “needs of others.” So prejudice may decline as the child functions in the elementary school (Aboud, 1992). The child is naturally advancing to the next stages of cognitive development, and is moving away from prejudice.

On Factors Other than the Home

It takes more than just a skip and a hop when moving to the next stage of cognitive and moral development. There are environmental forces at work here. Some will help. Others will hinder. According to Piaget, peer interaction is one of them (Piaget, 1932). Experiences with peers encourages children to take the perspective of others. Since they live in a culturally diverse world, they are confronted with opposing viewpoints. This is good. Exposure to different value systems stimulates racial critical thinking. There is also peer popularity, participation in social organizations, and service in leadership roles (Enright & Sutterfield, 1980). All this helps. Social success in pluralistic settings breaks down cognitive barriers. Peer discussions and roleplaying of moral issues in the classroom and teacher-led discussions of moral dilemmas tend to facilitate children’s passage from a lower to a higher moral stage. Piaget (1982), Kohlberg (1984) and others (Berkowitz, 1985, Haan et al, 1985) believe that cognitive conflict is the fundamental ingredient of change in moral understanding. This means cognitive disequilibrium, exposing children to conflicting information just ahead of their present moral level. This challenges them to revise their reasoning in the direction of more advanced thinking. On issues related to prejudice, some may do just that. Others, burdened with fossilized attitudes and ways of thinking, will not. They will be the most prejudiced of all. Perhaps the home environment is still too intruding. If the home is not verbal, rational, affectionate, and promoting of a cooperative lifestyle, it would be more difficult to advance to a higher moral stage. Children may pot be encouraged to contribute actively to family discussions, and parents may not be more advanced in moral reasoning themselves. They may also not be educated to the level where global understanding and social change are considered primary values (Rest & Thoma, 1985). These are negative forces that hinder moral development, and foster prejudice.

On the Prejudiced Personalty

Is there a prejudiced personality? Allport (1958) for one says yes. Emphatically. Others call it an “authoritarian” personality. Allport does not get into the inborn v. environment issue. He simply describes it based on numerous studies up to 1953. Certain children by age 5 already show such a personality. Such children tend to feel that there is only one right way to do anything. They better watch out because somebody is ready to get them. Only people like themselves should be happy. They are ambivalent toward parents – they love them, and fear them. Obedience, punishment and real or perceived rejection are big items in their lives. And so they are anxious, and this anxiety is reflected in their judgments of others. They do not tolerate human weakness as they do not tolerate outgroups either. Conventional “good” traits are important, even overriding: cleanliness, good manners, style. The world is a dichotomy: right or wrong. Unable to accept that there might be some of both in themselves, they cannot see it in others. This is not how they think when they are being prejudiced. This is how they think about anything anytime. Their tolerance for ambiguity is almost zero. They need clear, simple, firm answers, if there is no order, they will impose it. If confronted with a new way of looking at things, they stick to the old, tried way as if only the past can provide safe anchorage. Whenever possible they latch on to the familiar because only the familiar is safe and definite. When accused of being biased (“You hate boys”), they are convinced that it is they who hate her. They attach themselves inordinately to institutional groups because only in them can they find safety and order. They are loyal members, and they are extremely patriotic. Authority is welcomed since they basically distrust human beings. Everyone is to be distrusted until they prove themselves trustworthy. This is essentially what the prejudiced personality is like. It seems to be miles away from the upper stages of Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s levels of moral development or from Maslow’s self-actualizing individual, and it is deeply imbedded in what the child is. As Allport said, “Prejudice is more than an incident in many lives; it is often lock stitched into the very fabric of personality. In such cases it cannot be extracted. To change it, the whole pattern of life would have to be altered” (Allport, 1958).


Children are prejudiced. Prejudice is not instinctive. It is taught and learned. It is learned from family, peers, and the social environment. Its most important source is conformity to home environment. Prejudice is taught directly or the child picks it up through many verbal and non-verbal messages. Parents teach individual prejudices and help develop a prejudiced nature, being prejudiced as a lifestyle. Some home environments particularly affect the development of prejudice; quarreling, violence, little or no affection between parents, rejection of the child by either parent, suppression, cruelty, over critical, domineering. It is within this way of life that the child goes through the stages of moral development. Prejudice is a moral act because it deals with what is fair and what is not. In a social morality the role of “me” v. the role of “you” is paramount. In prejudice it is the role of “us” v. the role of “them.” The prejudiced child goes through several stages: fear of strangers, racial awareness, identification with “my” group, identification with what “my” parents feel, total rejection of outgroups, selective rejection of outgroups, reconceptualization of how I look at the world, and final choice: to be or not to be. Some will be prejudiced. Others will not. This is how prejudice begins.


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