Following recent events in our country, there have been more conversations about stereotypes and race. Children actually develop stereotypes and biases toward skin color at a very young age. The cause of this is twofold; one, because of the social influences that surround children and two, because our minds are designed to create and organize the world into groups and to make assumptions based on our knowledge of those groups. The reason that all human beings have stereotypes is because the human mind relies on them.

As soon as we are born we are able to tell our mothers apart from other women. As young as two months old, we have already created mental categories for mammals as opposed to non-living objects. We know this because of the “novelty preference”, which is the fact that babies tend to gaze at object that are new, or novel. We see their gaze change in reaction to objects that they have already categorized as different.

As we grow, these categories multiply and we rely on them when we are encountering new situations. In early development, the classic explanation of this is Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation. For example, a young child learns that furry animals with four legs are dogs. That child sees a cat and assumes it’s a dog. Then, a parent corrects them and explains why it is a cat, because of its whiskers, long tail, and meow. At that moment, the child sees the difference and may then create a new category with new information. The child no longer makes an assumption that furry animals with four legs are all dogs. In that case, the assumption was not helpful. But, it would be if the child encounters a dog it has never seen before and still recognizes it as a dog. In that case, the stereotype is useful. Recognizing animals is an example of how we organize the information that we have about the world. Literally everything that we know is within a category and impacts our assumptions. Early on, children create social categories for understanding people.

Social situations are complex which increases our reliance on our assumptions to be able to navigate them. Children quickly gather information regarding skin color; they hear what their parents say, they observe their parent’s reactions to people of certain skin colors, peers’ reactions, what is seen on TV, heard on the radio, and online. They then combine all of that information to create their category about people and skin color. They have different stereotypes, or categories, about all skin colors, including their own. As soon as these categories are created, the child will be making assumptions and relying on them, and will likely be unaware of them. This may impact who they play with or how they chose to play with them. It may also impact how they feel about themselves, about adults around them, or anyone they encounter in school. By the time we reach adulthood, our stereotypes and assumptions have been cultivated for some time. Knowing that they begin early on, we have some control over the assumptions that our children create and maintain. We have the ability to impact their categories and assumptions by being mindful of our influence on our children, and the influences around them.

Two boys image available from Shutterstock.