A Class Divided: Development of Prejudice in Children

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Table of Contents

  • Abstract 
  • Parental Influence 
  • References 


This paper explores the development of prejudice in children. Research has shown that a number of factors influence the development of prejudice. These factors include genetic influences, inter-group vs. out-group preferences, the influence of media, and parental influence. There have been many studies that illustrate when prejudice develops and why prejudice develops in children. One of the most famous exercises done by Jane Elliot shows how quick children are to discriminate the “inferior” group when the become the “superior” group. Children value their inter-group more than out-group and will tell pro-social lies to protect the feelings of their inter-group members. Other studies show how we all have genetic influences in regards to discrimination and prejudice. As well as children being influenced by parents. Parents display attitudes and beliefs about minority groups to their children, which correlate with the children's beliefs and attitudes about the minority groups as well. Are children born with racial prejudice? Or are there other factors that contribute to it? Prejudice is an attitude directed toward members of a specific social group (Brewer & Brown 1998). 

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There are many forms of prejudice, such as sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia, etc. A number of adults today, consider themselves to be unprejudiced, but they can unconsciously have negative attitudes toward different social groups without being aware of it. Attitudes people have toward members of a group are the emotional responses to the entire social group or the individuals who are members of the group ( Kite & Whitley 2016). So why do some children have racial prejudice toward certain members of racial/ethnic groups? A number of theories and research was conducted to explore the development of racial/ethnic prejudice in children. Jane Elliot’s “The Eye of the Storm” One exercise was done by Jane Elliot in 1968, a day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. which showed that racial prejudice can be fostered in children. 

Elliot was an elementary teacher and she conducted this experiment in her classroom with third-grade students. In “A Class Divided” she began talking about racism and how African Americans and Native Americans were not treated equally. She wanted her students to experience what it truly felt like to be the targets of prejudice. She divided the classroom into groups based on their eye color. There were two group conditions, the blue-eyed group, and the brown-eyed group. The first day, students who had blue-eyes became the “superior” group and students who had brown-eyes were the “inferior group” The brown-eyes group had to wear collars to be identified as the low-status group. The blue-eyed group had special privileges, they had extra time to play during recess, could go up for seconds during lunch, and discriminate towards the brown-eyed children by making themselves seem smarter and more civilized. The next day the brown-eyed students would be the “superior” group and the blue-eyed group would be the “inferior” group so that both groups could know what it felt like to be the low-status group. 

The results were fascinating. Elliot stated that the “superior” group became mean and were behaving in an unpleasant way towards the “inferior” group. She also noticed changes in the groups academic performance. Students that were in the “inferior” group, suffered in their academic performance and students that were in the “superior” group, academic performance was increased. When the “inferior” group was allowed to take their collars off, the students knew what it felt like to be the targets of prejudice and discrimination. Some accounts of the students' reactions were “One boy in class tried to rip his collar before throwing it away because he did not like how it made him feel and how others treated him when he wore the collar” (Peters, 1970, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 262). A number of the students were relieved to take off their collars and not be seen as a low- status group anymore. When the same students grew up and became young adults, they talked about the impact of Jane Elliot’s experiment had on them. They all agreed that it opened their eyes and they did experience firsthand to how awful it can feel to be the targets of prejudice and discrimination. 

It showed that the exercise did have a meaningful impact on their lives and taught them to treat all races equally. Implicit and Explicit Awareness of Social Categories Research has shown that children are aware of social categories such as race, gender, and age before they can even speak. In a study done by David Kelly and his colleagues (2005), they found that the awareness of social groups develops at an early age. Studies showed that newborn White children had no preference when looking at pictures of adults from different racial groups but white 3-month-olds displayed preferences for White adult faces rather than Middle-Eastern, Black, and Asian Adults. Research has also shown that infants are aware of other social categories such as age and gender. A study that was done by Fagan and Singer (1979) showed that infants spent a long time looking at a photo when it was a different age or gender than when it was the same age or gender as the old photo. This shows that age and gender are meaningful categories at such a young age. 

The results from these two studies show that infants have an implicit awareness about race, age, and gender from such a young age. Children will display explicit awareness of racial social categories at around 4-5 years old (Williams & Morland, 1976, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 266). Researchers have used open-ended tasks to explore children’s awareness of racial categories. One famous study was done by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947. They used the doll technique which consisted of showing children two or more different dolls. One of the dolls would be White with blond hair and the other doll would be Black with black hair. The child was asked, “Which looks like a White doll and which looks like a black doll?” Results showed that 75 percent of 4-5-year-olds accurately labeled the White or Black doll (Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 266). Accurately labeling the dolls shows that children as young as 4-5 years old have an explicit awareness of social groups based on race. To go further into the study, Kenneth and Mamie Clark examined Black children’s color preferences, the children were asked: “Give me the doll that you like the best. Give me the doll that is the nice doll. Give me the doll that looks bad. Give me the doll that is a nice color” (Clark & Clark, 1963, as cited in Kite & Whitley, pg. 267). 

The results were very sad and heartbreaking. 60 percent of children preferred the White doll when answering the positive requests, they believed that the White doll was nice and looked the best. 25 percent preferred the Black doll and 15 percent had given an ambiguous response. A number of the children rejected the Black doll because it “looks bad all over, cause him black, cause it looks like a Negro” (Clark & Clark, 1950, as cited in Kite & Whitely, 2016, pg. 267). They had an awareness of the social category of race since they did not choose the Black doll because he was black which makes him “look bad all over.” The reasoning for choosing the White doll was “cause he’s not colored like these, they are the best looking cause they’re white, cause it’s white-it’s pretty, cause that's the good one.” These statements depict that children already understand that society would rather prefer a White person than a Black person. They are explicitly aware of this and they realize that it is better to be White than Black because skin color is of importance towards being accepted in the world. They have the ability to recognize that being members of a certain racial group can be either good or bad. Inter-group Vs. Out-group A meta-analysis that was done by Tobias Raabe and Andreas Beelman (2011) consisted of “113 studies of racial prejudice in children from many parts of the world” (Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 269). 

They explored how prejudice changed from 2-4-year-olds to 17-19-year-olds. They examined ingroup children’s attitudes on outgroups. Researchers brought awareness towards the fact that the majority of the ingroup consisted of White children and the outgroup consisted of Black children and ethnic minority children. One important finding that Raabe and Beelman point out is that “the pattern of development of prejudice for majority group-children depended on the amount of contact they had with the minority group children” (Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 269). The results that they found were very fascinating. Majority-group children that had little contact with members of the outgroup showed an increased of prejudice from 2-4 years old to 17-19 years old. Although, majority-group children who had some contact with members of the outgroup did show slight prejudice from ages 2-4 and an increase of prejudice from 5-7 and the prejudice decreased after 7 years old. 

Majority-group members that did have contact with members of the outgroup did lead to a decrease in prejudice. Raabe and Beelman proposed two reasons for the decline in prejudice. They state that children around the ages of 8-10 learn to control prejudice since society “forbids expressions of prejudice” and having “exposure to intergroup members is associated with lower levels of prejudice” (Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 269). Attitudes of the minority group towards the majority group were extremely different compared to the majority group attitudes. Raabe and Beelmann (2011) found that from ages 2-4, minority group children had somewhat positive attitudes towards the minority group. These findings are completely different from the prejudiced attitudes the majority group had towards the minority group. 

As the minority group children got older, their attitudes towards majority group members became prejudiced. What is also very interesting is that intergroup contact did not have an effect on the minority-group children's intergroup attitudes. Even though the study was conducted with Black children, research with Asian American, Mexican American, and Native Amerian children had the same developmental pattern (Bernal et. al, 1993, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 271). Intergroup Behavior Intergroup behavior has been studied in elementary school children in lower grades. Researchers have found that “in playground and other social interactions, children prefer to interact with same-race peers but show somewhat less same-race preference during classroom interactions (Fishbein, 2002 as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg, 272). The less-race preference may be reduced because many teachers like to incorporate cross-race interactions with the students in the classroom. Although there has not been a lot of research on high school students, research done by Jamie Mihoko Doyle and Grace Kao (2007) gathered data from a national survey that depicted friendship patterns in White, Asian, Black, Native American, and mixed-children. They found that the students would choose “members of their own racial groups as friends” (Doyle & Kao, 2007, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 273). Intergroup behavior has been studied by multiple researchers, one study done by Sierksma, Spaltman, & Lansu (2019) found that children tell more prosocial lies in favor of in-group members rather than out-group members. It was found that children told, “more prosocial lies for the benefit of in-group compared with out-group peers” (Sierksma, Spaltman & Lansu, 2019, pg. 1). Prosocial lies are “white lies” people give to not hurt anyone’s feelings. 

The authors describe it as being in conflict between being honest and telling the truth or being kind and telling a lie to protect the relationship. The participants in the study consisted of 138 children (9-12 years old) from three primary schools in The Netherlands. The legal guardians of the participants signed consent forms so the children could participate and they received a small toy for their involvement in the study. The children had to sit in front of a laptop screen in a quiet room located in the school. First, they had to evaluate the gifts and rate the six items on a Likert scale where 1=Did not like and 5=Like very much. The authors would compare if the children would change their rating of the gift from the initial rating to the rating after they received the gift. The items that the children had to rate included: an eraser that was the shape of a smartphone, a deck of cards, colored chalk, a necklace, a deck of playing cards, and a set of marbles. (Sierksma, Spaltman & Lansu, 2019, pg. 4). 

After ranking the gifts, they were assigned to a small group and were connected to an in-group or out-group member. Children wore a t-shirt of the same color to show which team they were in. They were told that they were connected online with a child who also participates in the study somewhere else. They were also told that the child online was going to take the exam with the child online. When it was time to take the quiz, they were going to take it themselves (disappointing gift task) or watch the child they were connected with take the quiz (quiz outcome task). In the disappointing gift task, the participants took the quiz and were told that the peer they were connected to was watching them. They had to answer six multiple choice questions and if they answered three correct then they would receive a prize picked the online peer. The gift that was revived was actually the one that was ranked “least liked.” In order to evaluate prosocial behavior, they told the peer how much they liked the gift from the sawm ranking scale 1=Do not like at all and 5=Like very much. In the quiz outcome task, participants were told that the peer they were connected to online would take the quiz and if they got three questions right then they would pick a gift for them. The researchers already had a prerecorded video that showed the peer was taking the quiz, it showed that the peer had only answered two out of the six questions right (Sierksma, Spaltman & Lansu, 2019, pg. 5). The experiment looked as it had crashed, then the experiment would go into the room and reset it. 

When the program reset, a message appeared on the screen that said, “The computer suggests that (name fictional other child) scored three points and thus earns a prize! Is that correct?” (Sierksma, Spaltman & Lansu, 2019, pg. 5). The participant would select yes or no which would display prosocial behavior. The results for the disappointing gift task and the quiz outcome task showed that the participants lied more when it had to do with an in-group peer rather than an our-group peer. This positive prosocial lying occurred because they were “motivated to maintain a positive social identity and prefer their in-group to their out-group” (Sierksma, Spaltman & Lansu, 2019, pg. 8). This relates to Jane Elliot’s exercise of the blue-eyed group and the brown-eyed group. Where the majority group (ingroup) would hold more positive attitudes about their members and hold more negative attitudes about the minority group (outgroup) who were lower status and wore collars to depict that. In this study, members of the in-group wore the same colored t-shirts to represent they were apart of the majority group. 

At a young age, children value being apart of the majority group and will tell a prosocial lie if it means protecting their in-group members. Racial Prejudice and the Media There has been evidence that states that media such as television, movies, video games, children’s books, etc depict racial/ethnic group in stereotypic ways ( Arthur et. al, 2008, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 287). The more children watch television or read movies that depict members of racial/ethnic groups the more they are given an opportunity to take in the stereotypes without being conscious of it. Reid, (1979), states that “the more television children watch, the more they will express racial and gender stereotypes suggesting that children learn what they live” (Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 287) The “drench hypothesis” by Greenberg (1988) explains that it is not the number of minority individuals shown on television that make an impact “on the attitudes of the viewers but rather the critical portrayals” (Persson & Musher-Eizenman, 2003, pg. 532). 

The critical portrayals that Greenberg mentions are “role portrayals that stand out are deviant, are intense, and thus are more important viewing experiences” (Persson & Musher-Eizenman, 2003, pg. 532). The role portrayals that “stand out” and are “deviant” from children’s regular routine can cause an attitude change. Research has shown that when children watch critical portrayals on television, it contributes to either changing or building schemas about minority group members. One study was done by Gorn et al. (1976) found that when children would watch educational shows changed the “inter-group attitudes of preschool children” (Persson & Musher-Eizenman, 2003, pg. 532). White children ages (3.5-5.5) who watched educational shows such as Sesame Street which incorporated White children playing with minority group children stated that they preferred to play with non-White children. But, when they watched an episode on Sesame Street that had no diversity and only had White children playing together, children preferred to play with only White children. 

These results indicate that incorporating White children and minority group children together on TV shows can reduce the stereotypes of the minority groups that are usually depicted on TV. Incorporating all racial/ethnic groups together will show children that all groups are equal and can play together. Incorporating this can have positive and long-lasting impacts on children and can influence them to play with children who are not the same race as them. They can understand that the color of someone’s skin does not matter and no one should feel less than someone else because of the color of their skin. Genetic Influences Researchers have found that prejudice is in our genetic makeup. Studies on monozygotic (identical twins) and dizygotic (fraternal twins) have investigated if prejudice is genetically inherited. Social attitudes such as, “the belief of White superiority, approval of social segregation, and the opposition to interracial marriage had clear genetic components” (Neuberg & Cotrell, 2006, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 280). As well as favoritism based on race, ethnicity, and gender. Other findings state that “outgroup derogation (prejudice) has a genetic component” (Gary Lewis et. al as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 280). Personality variables such as right-wing authoritarianism have genetic components (McCourt et. al, 1999, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 280). 

Parental Influence 

One of the biggest influences on a child’s beliefs and behavior is their parents. Researchers Juliane Degner and Jonas Dalega (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of 131 studies between the correlation of parents’ inter-group attitudes and their children. Results found that there was “moderate average correlations between the attitudes held by parents and their children Parent-child agreement was “similar for gender and racial/ethnic group attitudes but somewhat greater for attitudes toward nationality groups and immigrants” (Degner & Jonas, 2013, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 282). Another fascinating finding was done by R.Chris Fraley and his colleagues on parental influence on children's own beliefs and behavior. They found that the authoritarian attitudes that parents held when their child was 1 month old could actually predict the authoritarian attitudes held by the same children when they turned 18 (Fraley et. al, 2013, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 282). Parental influence on prejudice can be in the form of direct teaching or indirect teaching. 

Direct teaching includes the parent telling their children that certain members of an ethnic group as bad. Indirect teaching involves the parents acting as role models. Although, direct teaching is rarely used because parents do not usually discuss prejudice with their children. It has been found that “White parents rarely discuss prejudice with their children, either in general conversation or when given pictures that include both Black and White individuals to discuss with their children” (Katz, 2003, as cited in Kite & Whitley, 2016, pg. 283). If parents learn to teach their children about equality and how all children should be treated as equal rather than express right-wing authoritarianism, I believe that it will lead children to not stereotype minority groups and cause them to not discriminate against them as well. There are many different factors that contribute to the development of prejudice in children. Genetic influences state that prejudice is found in our genetic makeup and a number of social attitudes have genetic components. Inter-group has a big influence on how children teach the out-group (minority members). 

Children value their inter-group relationships and usually favor majory groups rather than minority groups. They are more likey to tell prosocial lies and save their in-group members feelings from being hurt compared to out-group peers. The famous exercise that was done by Jane Elliot depicts how fast children can display prejudice If they were the “superior” group they treated the “inferior” group as if they were lower than them and not capable of being as smart and clean as they were. The “inferior group” got to experience firsthand of what it felt like to be part of the minority group and discriminated against. After the students finished the exercise, they realized that everyone should be treated equal and they took what they learned and used it in the real world. They would not discriminate against different members of racial/ethnic groups. Another important factor in the development of racial/ethnic prejudice is the influence of the media. Studies have shown that children from the ages of 3.3 to 5.5 watch a lot of television. The more children watch education shows that incorporate White children and different race/ethnic children playing together, the more children will prefer to play with children who are different in race and ethnicity. But, if children are only watching White children playing with only White children, the more they will prefer to play with White children and less with children of a different race and ethnicity, Lastly, parental influence plays a major role on the way children express prejudice. It is important for parents to teach their children to embrace difference races, instead of displaying right-wing authoritarianism and influencing their children to discriminate against minority groups. It is important to consider all of these different factors when exploring the development of prejudice in children. 


  1. Benner, A. D., Wang, Y., Shen, Y., Boyle, A. E., Polk, R., & Cheng, Y.-P. (2018). Racial/ethnic discrimination and well-being during adolescence: A meta-analytic review. American Psychologist, 73(7), 855–883.
  2. Kite, M. E., & Whitley, B. E. (2016). Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. New York; London: Routledge.
  3. Levy, S. R. (1999). Reducing prejudice: Lessons from social-cognitive factors underlying perceiver differences in prejudice. Journal of Social Issues, 55(4), 745–765.
  4. Sierksma, J., Spaltman, M., & Lansu, T. A. M. (2019, March 28). Children Tell More Prosocial Lies in Favor of In-Group Than Out-Group Peers. Developmental Psychology.
  5. Verkuyten M, De Wolf A. The development of in-group favoritism: Between social reality and group identity. Developmental Psychology. 2007;43(4):901-911.

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