developmental psychologist investigates how children think about fairness
should decide who he wants to hang out with," a 7th grade boy tells
the interviewer. "You pick your friends. No one else picks your
is responding to a question about another boyís decision not to make
friends with a girl. But when asked if itís all right for Jerry, who is
White, not to play with Damon, who is Black, the same 7th grader, himself
Hispanic, reasons otherwise: "No, thatís not okay because thatís
just racism. Ö He is the same as Jerry on the inside, but on the outside
they are different."
developmental psychologist and faculty member in a college of education, I
work with teachers who are eager to find out how children make decisions
about social interactions like the ones mentioned above. They want to know
how children develop social and moral concepts, when they apply these
concepts to how they get along with others ó especially those from a
different gender or ethnic group ó and what types of external influences
matter to children.
in everyday situations, educators and parents often find themselves
addressing these issues in "crisis management" mode: A conflict
has broken out between children from different backgrounds, and adults are
there to mediate or to determine what course of action should occur.
heat of the moment, such communication often bypasses a crucial chance to
listen to what children really think ó a dimension of experience that
actions sometimes belie.
colleagues and I designed a series of studies to find out how children and
adolescents evaluate acts of exclusion based on gender and race.
results were hard to predict. Current literature shows that children form
stereotypes early (gender stereotypes emerge in preschool years and
race-based stereotypes during elementary school years).
adolescents are wary of being labeled "politically correct" and
view civil rights issues as something "of the past." Thus
children could judge exclusion based on gender or race as legitimate
because it confirms stereotypic norms, or they might view it with
extensive research shows that fairness judgments emerge during preschool
years regarding play. As children get older, their sense of fairness
extends to resource allocation and concern for othersí welfare.
few prior moral development researches have examined issues involving
inter-group relationships. Our studies reflect a crucial shift in social
development research over the last decade: Rather than talking with
children about hypothetical scenarios involving children just like them,
we are now interested in how children make decisions about fairness in
situations involving both sexes and other races.
Design and Procedures
interviews involve short scenarios about hypothetical decisions among
children and do not involve asking children about their personal
experience. We tell them that we are interested in what they think about
what other children do, that there are no right or wrong answers.
about 20 semi-structured questions, we draw out childrenís underlying
reasoning about exclusion. We ask them to elaborate: "Why is that?
Tell me more. How come itís that way?"
method is designed to move beyond childrenís mimicked responses and to
assess the ways in which their judgments are influenced by peer pressure,
authority viewpoints and cultural expectations. We conduct one-to-one
interviews in quiet rooms at school, to ensure confidentiality and
tape-record the interviews and transcribe them for analysis, using coding
systems to quantify childrenís responses and determine general patterns
for different age groups, genders and ethnicities of the participants.
in Three Contexts
asked children how they assessed a childís decision not to be friends
with someone (a new kid in the neighborhood) because of his or her race
and gender. We also asked students how they judged exclusion from a peer
group (music club), as well as how they evaluated a townís decision to
exclude children from school because of their gender or race.
followed up our initial questions with probes about how students view the
role of peer influence ("What if his friends tell him not to let her
in the club?"), adult influence ("What if the parents say she
should be friends with him?"), and cultural expectations ("What
if there is another country that does not let girls go to school?").
found that, in the school context, 97 percent of children said it would be
wrong to exclude children from school because of their gender or race. A
4th grade European American boy commented about keeping girls away from
not all right because itís not like girls have this certain disease.
There is no difference between anybody, and everybody should be able to go
grade African American girl spoke forthrightly about excluding Black
children from school:
an educational matter, and you should have freedom of education no matter
what color you turn out to be. You are still a person, same organs, maybe
the skin stuff is a little different, but that shouldnít have anything
to do with it."
two students gave priority to the right of everyone to go to school. At
the same time, they rejected the notion of group membership as a reason
scenarios involving friendship and peer group, however, stereotypes and
cultural expectations began to intervene. Many students supported a
groupís decision to exclude a girl from a music club and viewed
friendship decisions as a matter of personal choice.
contrast to their response to exclusion from school, which all the
children deemed wrong, 30 percent said it was all right not to be friends
with someone solely because of gender, and 25 percent thought it
legitimate for boys to bar a girl from a music club.
comparison, fewer students agreed with the decision to exclude someone
because of race as a friend (15 percent) or from a music club (12
a student who reports that exclusion is all right in one context judges
that it would be wrong in another context (as in the opening example).
This may be because children grasp the complex factors that lie behind
decisions of inclusion and exclusion.
variability could also signal real uncertainties about when to give
priority to fairness and when to privilege group functioning or personal
choice. Adults can take these opportunities to help children examine their
reasoning and develop consistent principles of fair treatment.
that this indirect approach to "values education" is helpful
because it focuses on peer interaction contexts (how peers treat one
another). The teacher serves as a facilitator and guides classroom
discussion around familiar but salient issues in childrenís lives. They
can raise questions about when fairness principles may be relevant to the
discussion. We find that fairness, however, is one of the first issues
raised by students themselves.
may reflect the pattern that, in American society today, gender
stereotypes are more widely expressed and condoned than are racial
stereotypes. There are many contexts in our society in which the
segregation of the sexes is viewed as legitimate (e.g., restrooms, sports
teams and schools), whereas the segregation of individuals by race is
almost uniformly condemned (excepting many Greek societies that practice
de facto racial segregation).
asymmetry of societal expectations about exclusion may make it more
difficult for children (and adults) to tease out decisions about gender
grade European American boy observed:
think that Mike and his friends should not let the girl in the club. Girls
really donít know much about music. Ö A club works better if everyone
has the same ideas and the same interests."
other hand, a 7th grade European American girl vacillated between her
sense of fairness and social expectations: "Trying to keep her out
just because sheís a girl Ö thatís discrimination. But boys, they
talk about stuff that girls just donít like or donít like doing.
Itís probably okay to not let her in because sheíd just be the only
girl and all those boys would be talking about stuff that she wouldnít
know about. But really, they donít have a good reason not to let her in,
and I think thatís a form of discrimination."
engaging students in exercises of analytical and ethical decision-making,
adults can help youngsters discern when exclusion is legitimately a
personal or group decision and when it violates principles of fairness. My
colleagues and I have contributed to the design of social development
curricula that include guided discussions about what it means to preserve
group identity, how to evaluate cultural perceptions and when it is
fair/unfair to exclude (see Activity).
and Peer Influences
majority of children who initially thought exclusion was wrong did not
change their judgment even when hearing that parents or peers said it was
all right. We noted that peer influence was more effective in positively
changing childrenís judgments than was authority influence.
shows that fairness principles do carry force. Further, it suggests that
youth activism opportunities and programs that encourage young people to
discuss equity and tolerance with their peers can be effective means of
are some examples from children who were conflicted but ultimately
resisted the authority influence. A 4th grade Hispanic girl said:
donít think itís right to do something that your parents donít want
you to do, but still you should be friends with everyone. Maybe his
parents had a good reason for telling him it was okay to not play with
Damon [who is Black]. If it was up to me, Iíd tell him to play with him
because you want to be nice to everyone."
European American 4th grader reasoned as follows:
families do different things. Ö I guess theyíre not used to, well,
itís actually their parentsí fault for not letting them hang out with
different races. Iím not in charge of Jerry, but I donít think itís
right ícause a lot of Black people are very nice, and why would the
parents say that? But itís hard sometimes, because you want to obey your
Asian American 10th grade male, however, was more forceful in his answer:
parents are teaching him Ö racism, because encouraging him to be against
him because of his skin color is very wrong. Ö Yes, I would call it
young age, children confront a diversity of viewpoints from adults (such
as parents, teachers, camp counselors, neighbors and coaches). Through
reflective discussion, children can develop the ability to evaluate adult
important for educators to encourage children to discern their own moral
principles and to act on them, even when they hear discrepant messages
from other adults, including their parents.
research shows that, with age, the majority of children develop
sensitivity to the contexts of social decision-making. For example, they
identify many reasons that are used to justify exclusion, such as group
functioning and autonomy. Some of these concerns are legitimate, and
adults should recognize them as such.
times, however, these concerns may be a guise for implicit stereotypes.
Educators and parents can use reflective dialogue to help young people
probe their assumptions about group identity, individual prerogatives and
fairness. (Editorsí note: We encourage students grades 8 through 12 to
explore the hidden bias tests at Tolerance.org.
accounts for this gender distinction? What types of feedback can we give
to boys to facilitate their awareness of fairness and inclusion?
parents and educators now routinely encourage girls to challenge gender
stereotypes and build confidence and self-esteem by participating in
sports, our culture has been slower to provide opportunities for boys to
overcome masculine stereotypes regarding communication and social
one hopeful sign ó among students we interviewed, there were few
differences between the ethnic groups regarding the morality of exclusion.
What stood out was that minority students were much more likely to step
back and elaborate on the need for integration, the principles of justice,
and the desire to make a better world.
partially attributable perhaps to the types of school environments these
children are in, as well as studentsí personal experience with
exclusion. Our studies were conducted in middle- to working-class areas
outside a metropolitan region, whose population was of mixed ethnicity.
other related studies that we are now conducting, we find that students in
more homogeneous school environments are less sensitive to these issues
than are students in heterogeneous environments.
often challenging is to determine when fairness should take priority,
particularly in situations involving deeply ingrained social expectations
or beliefs based on group membership.
becomes more elaborate with age, but so do stereotypes. We find that
adolescents resort to group-functioning arguments much more often than do
view, experiencing positive inter-group contact in the elementary school
period is particularly important for reducing inter-group tension in
middle school, when social cliques and groups become highly salient forms
of self-definition. If we wait until high school to discuss these topics,
our task of facilitating a sense of justice and equality in our next
generation is much more difficult.
daily interactions, as well as from our nationís history and beyond,
children are learning to form their judgments about inclusion, exclusion,
fairness and stereotypes. As adults, we have a responsibility to help
children learn in order not to repeat the wrongs of using race, ethnicity
or gender to decide how friendships are made, clubs are formed, or how
begin by listening to how children think and helping them navigate tough
choices, between whatís expedient and whatís fair.