CNN recently conducted a pilot study to determine young children’s attitude toward race, which raised many eyebrows. The surprising, yet critical findings pointed to a need for parents everywhere to teach children about values and self-esteem much earlier than expected.
To conduct the pilot study, CNN hired consultant Margaret Beale Spencer — a renowned child psychologist and researcher from the University of Chicago. The pictures of caricature dolls were juxtaposed in front of each child who participated in the study. The dolls were identical except for one feature: The colour of their skin, which ranged from very light to very dark.
More than 130 children from eight schools were asked questions about who the smart child was and who the mean child was. The study showed an overwhelming bias in favour of the white dolls among the white children in the study. Surprisingly, the same bias — though not nearly as strong — showed up in the black children. In other words, the darkest doll was most often identified as the “mean” and “dumb” child‚ while the lightest doll was identified as the nicest child and smartest one.
One white mother was in tears as she watched her five-year-old daughter say the “white child is good because ‘I think she looks like me,’” and said the black child is ugly because “she’s a lot darker.” The mom said she has never discussed race with her child.
The CNN study drew thousands of comments afterwards, including from a broad spectrum of professionals. The consensus was that it is necessary to teach children about race issues during their toddler years, not leave them to come to their own conclusions, which evidently they do, based on whatever experiences they encounter.
Many pointed fingers at media stereotypes; this argument can go on indefinitely. Although dialogue can lead to constructive change, more importantly the test reveals the expeditious rate young children absorb information, process it themselves, and the urgent necessity for parental involvement on teaching children values and healthy self-esteem before conditioning occurs.
The implications of the CNN race study are critical if we want our children to grow up with healthy self-esteem, regardless of colour. This can expand to any endowment like size and height. We all know how body image affects our children, even to the point of eating disorders. Given the implications of the CNN study, parental teaching overall is paramount from an early age.
Christine Williams is the producer and host of the live current affairs daily talk show On the Line at CTS TV in Burlington, Ont.