Young children sometimes give the impression of being racially prejudiced - for example, by preferring to play with other children who have the same colour skin as them. To find out where these attitudes come from, Luigi Castelli and colleagues at the University of Padova in Italy, looked to parents and found that it is mothers' perceived attitudes which are more influential than fathers'.
The researchers tested the attitudes of 58 white children aged between four and seven years. Presented with a drawing of a white child and a black child, 86 per cent of the children said they would prefer to play with the white child. They were also more likely to allocate a choice of positive attributes to the white child than to the black child, while showing the opposite pattern when allocating a list of negative attributes.
So where does this bias come from? Rather than asking the parents about their attitudes, as past research has done, this study looked at the children's perception of their parents' attitudes. This approach has the benefit of avoiding parents' tendency to give socially appropriate answers.
Around 80 per cent of the children said they thought their parents would prefer them to play with the white child, giving similar percentages for their mothers and fathers. Similarly, around three quarters of the children said they thought their mother and father would prefer to meet a white adult rather than a black adult, and that their parents would allocate more positive traits to a white adult than to a black adult.
Next, the researchers carried out some statistics (a linear regression) to see whether it was the children's perception of their mothers' or their fathers' attitudes that best predicted the children's own attitudes. Crucially, the mothers' perceived attitudes predicted both the children's choice of playmate and their allocation of attributes, whereas the fathers' perceived attitudes predicted neither.
"In sum, mothers seem to play a more relevant role in comparison with fathers in shaping children's responses towards Blacks," the researchers concluded.
Castelli, L., Carraro, L., Tomelleri, S. & Amari, A. (2007). White children's alignment to the perceived racial attitudes of the parents: Closer to the mother than father. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 25, 353-357.