After watching the videos, the families returned to the Children’s Research Lab for retesting. As Vittrup expected, for the families who had watched the videos without any parental reinforcement and conversation, there was no improvement over their scores from a week before. The message of multicultural harmony—seemingly so apparent in the episodes—wasn’t affecting the kids at all.
But to her surprise, after she crunched the numbers, Vittrup learned that neither of the other two groups of children (whose parents talked to them about interracial friendship) had improved their racial attitudes. At first look, the study was a failure. She felt like she was watching her promising career vanish before her own eyes. She’d had visions of her findings published in a major journal—but now she was just wondering if she’d even make it through her dissertation defense and get her Ph.D.
Scrambling, Vittrup consulted her dissertation advisors until she eventually sought out Bigler.
“Whether the study worked or not,” Bigler replied, “it’s still telling you something.” Maybe there was something interesting in why it had no effect?
Combing through the parents’ study diaries, Vittrup noticed an aberration. When she’d given the parents the checklist of race topics to discuss with their kindergartners, she had also asked them to record whether this had been a meaningful interaction. Did the parents merely mention the item on the checklist? Did they expand on the checklist item? Did it lead to a true discussion?
Almost all the parents reported merely mentioning the checklist items, briefly, in passing. Many just couldn’t talk about race, and they quickly reverted to the vague “Everybody’s equal” phrasing.
Of all the parents who were told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six managed to do so. All of those six kids greatly improved their racial attitudes.
Vittrup sailed through her dissertation and is now an assistant professor at Texas Women’s University in Dallas. Reflecting later about the study, Vittrup realized how challenging it had been for the families: “A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”
We all want our children to be unintimidated by differences and have the social skills to integrate in a diverse world. The question is, do we make it worse, or do we make it better, by calling attention to race?
Of course, the election of President Barack Obama has marked the beginning of a new era in race relations in the United States—but it hasn’t resolved the question as to what we should tell children about race. If anything, it’s pushed that issue to the forefront. Many parents have explicitly pointed out Obama’s brown skin to their young children, to reinforce the message that anyone can rise to become a leader, and anyone—regardless of skin color—can be a friend, be loved, and be admired.
But still others are thinking it’s better to say nothing at all about the president’s race or ethnicity—because saying something about it unavoidably teaches a child a racial construct. They worry that even a positive statement (“It’s wonderful that a black person can be president”) will still encourage the child to see divisions within society. For them, the better course is just to let a young child learn by the example; what kids see is what they’ll think is normal. For their early formative years, at least, let the children know a time when skin color does not matter.
A 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, 45% said they’d never, or almost never, discussed race issues with their children. But that was for all ethnicities. Nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75% of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race.
For decades, we assumed that children will only see race when society points it out to them. That approach was shared by much of the scientific community—the view was that race was a societal issue best left to sociologists and demographers to figure out. However, child development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys. “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.