by Louise Derman-Sparks
PART ONE: THE DEVELOPMENTAL JOURNEY
Supporting our children’s learning to know themselves, and to like who they are—without feeling superior or inferior to others—is a fundamental task of parenting. This task is about both children’s personal and social identities. All of us have both personal identities and multiple social identities that contribute to our sense of who we are—and how we think about others. Throughout our lives, from early childhood on, we actively construct an evolving understanding of both kinds of identity. Understanding this life-long developmental and experiential journey can strengthen our capacity to be effective guides and supporters of our children.
Personal and social identities: How they differ and why they both matter
Our personal identity includes factors such as our name, personality, talents, interests, self-confidence, and the specifics of, and relationships with, our family. These give us our sense of individuality. Personal identity is primarily fostered by a child’s home and extended family, and then by their community and school experiences. Personal identity is what most parents—and early childhood teachers—think about when they are planning ways to nurture children’s positive self-concepts. Parenting books are usually about this component of children’s self-concept.
As children develop their personal identities, they also construct their social identities. In comparison to personal identity, social identities denote memberships in groups that are defined by society, are shared with many other people, and have societal advantages and disadvantages attached to them. Central identities in our society includes gender, race, economic class, ethnicity and cultural heritage, religious affiliation, ability/disability, sexual choices, and age. While family and teachers still have a significant role in the development of children’s social identities, the society in which we live plays a very powerful role as well.
In our highly racialized society, who we are racially is one of our central social identities—whether we want it to be or not. The structural and interpersonal dynamics of racism have a profound impact on how all children construct their racial social identities. Institutionalized and interpersonal dynamics of the –isms enhance or undermine our access to opportunities and resources; they impact our beliefs about our own capacities and limitations; they make successful life outcomes easier or harder.
Nevertheless, as powerful as is the influence of the larger society on children’s development of their racial identity—and other social identities—that is not the whole picture. Throughout our lives, we can learn to resist the negative ideas and actions that prevail in our society about who we are. While our social identities are externally imposed, they are also internally constructed by the child as they work to make sense of the world. This means that significant adults in a child’s life (e.g., parents, family members, teachers, religious leaders) play a major role in helping children to either feel proud and confident, or shamed and conflicted, about both their personal and social identities. Although the key concepts and activity guidelines are adaptable to the other major social identities in our society, the focus of this article is on racial identity.
The racial/ethnic identity developmental journey
What children learn about their racial social identity comes from their families and the larger society. While parents and family members are children’s first teachers, their lessons do not exist in a social vacuum. The explcit and implicit messages about race and racial identity, generated by the continuing structural and ideological dynamics and messages of racism in our society, profoundly affect children’s developing racial identities. Moreover, in a society as highly racialized as ours, we cannot choose to opt out of this reality—as much as we may abhor it. Every child goes on the racial identity developmental journey, including white children. Key steps in this journey are universal to all kids. While there are general age ranges for each step, some children may enter in any phase of the journey earlier or later than others.
Six months to age five
This is the first foundational period of racial social identity development. From their first year of life, children pay attention to differences and similarities among the people who surround them. As young as six months, infants demonstrate that they notice differences in skin color. Between 18 months and age two toddlers begin to learn—and apply—color names to skin colors. By age three, children begin asking questions about their attributes connected to racial identity. By four and five, they also become curious about what parts of themselves will stay the same and what parts will change as they grow up. These steps reflect normal learning, as children try to make sense of all the data they observe around them.
And there is more. As young children observe, are curious about, and try to figure out what they are absorbing about the differences among people, four- and five-year-old children also start noticing and absorbing the societal norms, stereotypes, and biases about their own and others’ racial identity. These messages, which may be positive or negative, come in many forms—some obvious and explicit, some indirect and implicit. Even though many adults like to think young children do not notice “race” and are unaware of racial prejudice, a body of research shows that these beliefs are not true. Moreover, the prevailing biases in our society do begin to harm children in their preschool years. For example, Dr. William Cross, a pioneer in the study of how young African American children form racial identity, compared the many small microaggressions children experience over time to physically poisonous “micro-contaminants.” The psychological poison of both explicit and implicit racial biases and microaggressions build up and undermine children’s evolving sense of who they are—as well as influence their attitudes to others. Another outstanding, yearlong study of preschoolers’ conversations and interactions in a racially diverse preschool offers lots of detail about how children quickly learned racial terminology, used racial language to describe themselves and others, and used racial terms as negatives when teasing or excluding children from play.
Here is an example, of how bias issues beyond the family differentially affected the personal and social identities of two children in the same family:
When my son was tiny, he had that wispy, white, “dandelion” hair sticking up all over his head. Sometimes children at the nursery school teased him about his hair, which hurt his feelings and took some intervention from the teacher and support from us. A few years later, my foster daughter, whose is Latina and African American, came to live with us. She, too, got some teasing for her large, fluffy “Afro” hair, and again, the teacher and our family intervened. However, during his preschool years, my son’s hair became blond, straight, and very much like the hair he saw in books and movies. By the time he was five, hair was no longer an issue for him. Indeed, others saw him as an “all-American boy,” and the many images of boys like him in school, in the media, and so on, reinforced the message.
My foster daughter, however, picked up all the messages about “good hair versus bad hair” and the covert messages from movies and books about who is beautiful and who is not. Such social messages repeatedly reinforced the early teasing, and try as we might, we were unable to protect her from coming to think of herself as “funny looking.” It was not until we moved to a community where there were many other African American people, and a favorite teacher with a wondrous Afro, that she was able to see her own beauty.
Between the years of four and six, children also begin to form ideas about the relationships among advantage, disadvantage, power, and identity in our society, as they try to make sense of what they see and hear in their daily experiences. Through messages and the behavior of family, teachers, doctors, nurses, police, religious leaders, and media, young children begin learning about who is and who isn’t important in the larger society. Messages of invisibility and visibility play a particularly significant role in communicating who matters to young children. When children see themselves and their families positively reflected in their community (e.g., their early childhood education setting) and in the media, they feel affirmed. When children’s identities and families are invisible, children may develop a sense of inferiority about themselves and their families. These life observations and experiences can begin the process of self-limitation. Here is an example of this from my own transracial adoptive family, one that became an instigator for my anti-bias work:
“I don’t want to be Black anymore,” my four-year-old son announced at dinner one evening. In response to our question about why, he said, “I want to be like the people on ‘Emergency!’ when I grow up.” (‘Emergency!’ was a TV program in the 1970s about paramedics and firefighters, none of whom was Black.) It became clear this was not an issue of personal self-concept—my son was not saying he didn’t like himself. Rather, it seemed to us that he was trying to figure out what to do with a media message about his racial identity. We immediately responded, “You can be a firefighter when you grow up if you want to. There are already many Black firefighters.” (We also followed-up with activities to reinforce this message—visiting a fire station with an African American firefighter, and buying a puzzle showing dark-skinned firefighters.)
Age six to nine
During the primary-school years, children’s evolving racial social identity is increasingly influenced by experiences at school and with peers. Some children may choose to play only with children close to their racial/cultural identities, but may also reject members of their own racial/cultural group. Some may use prejudicial insults and name-calling to show anger or aggression. However, children in this age group also enjoy exploring the similarities and differences in the home cultures of their peers/classmates. They are interested in and can now begin to understand simple scientific explanations about skin color differences.
This age group has the growing cognitive capacity to learn to think critically about what is true and not true, fair and not fair. They can identify stereotypes, and engage in “social justice” activities on issues that directly touch them in their classroom, school and neighborhood. They also like to learn about the “history” of their racial social identity group in a concrete way, (e.g., interviewing people and writing about them).
From age 10 to 14 (early adolescence)
There is some evidence that after age nine, children’s attitudes about racial identity tend to become solidified and that some may begin to distort accurate information to keep their stereotyped beliefs consistent.  Children of color are increasingly aware of racism against their own racial/cultural group. In response, third grade seems to be a time when some children-of-color may “psychologically” drop out of school. Young adolescents also become increasingly aware of and often disturbed by contradictions between what significant adults (e.g., family, teachers, religious figures) say and do about racial issues.
At the same time, this is an age when children have the capacity to develop (if they have not yet been taught) and use critical thinking skills to understand the dynamics of racism between people, and to also begin to learn about how institutional forms of racism operate. They can come to understand the contradictions between prevailing racist ideas and what is really true about their own and others’ racial identity groups. They can then use learned skills to resist the harmful impact of racism on themselves and to interrupt racially prejudiced and discriminatory behavior directed at others.
Being in a group with other people like oneself now becomes even more important—as well as being in racially/ethnically mixed groups that tackle ways to resist racism. Young adolescents need a place to voice their concerns about injustices they see in their own lives, in their communities, and in the media. They gain a stronger sense of their own power when they can engage in anti-racist activities in their community related to their understanding and interests. They also benefit from learning about current and past people who engaged in a range of anti-racist and other social justice activities from all racial/cultural groups.
Late adolescence and young adulthood (high school, college)
By now, social identities are usually well-established, although attitudes about self and others can and do change, particularly when challenged in new settings, such as college or travel or even a strong relationship. Reworking of personal and group identity can go in positive or negative directions. Adolescents and young adults of color may (a) reclaim their identity/history, (b) act out internalized racism against themselves and others, or (c) show aspects of both. White adolescents and young adults may (a) reject/deny anti-racism teaching or actively carry out racism (e.g., skinheads), (b) insist on a “color-blind” stance and passively (through conformity) participate in racism, or (c) reject white racism (as they understand it) and try to develop an anti-racist identity and behavior.
Adolescents and young adults have the capacity to understand fully how cultural and institutional racism, internalized superiority, and internalized oppression work. They can engage in critical examination of their own beliefs, cross-racial/cultural dynamics, and develop empathetic connections and interactions. Learning accurate history about all groups of people, as well as accurate history of racism and anti-racism, play a crucial role in their development. This is also a time when a strong sense of fairness and justice, coupled with accurate knowledge about their own and other groups’ past and present, can profoundly strengthen young adults’ sense of their place in the world; it’s a time rife with opportunities to honestly voice their life narratives. Participating in creative anti-racism and social justice action in their community will nurture their sense of their own power in the world. Remember that it was adolescents and young adults who were the heart of the great civil rights movement of the sixties.
PART TWO: WHAT PARENTS AND OTHER ADULTS CAN DO
Here are some strategies for fostering your children’s positive racial/ethnic social identity. As with all parenting tasks, implementation details will differ depending in the age, experience and needs of a specific child.
Be self-reflective. A grounding principle in working with children on their social identities and attitudes is to know yourself. We have to come to an understanding of self, and know that how we see our own identity is related to how we see others. This requires being introspective and is necessary work for everyone to do, regardless of our racial, ethnic, or cultural identities (Carol Brunson Day). Some questions to ask yourself and discuss with other family members include:
What did you learn in your childhood about your racial/ethnic social identity?
What did you see (or not see) about people “like you” in books, films, TV, school environment and textbooks? What messages did you get from the visibility or invisibility of such images?
In your heart of hearts, do you believe some of the messages that declare members of any of your own social identity groups to be inferior or superior in some ways? If so, what are these messages? Where did you learn them?
What do you want your children to know (or not “know”) about their racial social identity?
What do you want your children to know about other social identities?
What are some of the implicit messages about racial and ethnic identity in your child’s school, and community environments? What might you do about ones you think reflect misinformation and racial bias?
Ensure visibility and affirmation of your child’s racial (and ethnic) identities in your home and family life. Fill your home environment with a range of materials for your children and for yourself (e.g., toys, books, music, artwork for them; books, magazines, music, and artwork for you). Connect with people and places in your community (e.g. neighborhood, schools, places of worship, and social activities) that reflect your children’s racial and ethnic identities.
Listen to your children’s questions, comments, concerns, and feelings about their racial identity and take them seriously. Treat children’s ideas and feelings with respect, even when their information is “incorrect” from the adult perspective and knowledge. Support their feelings and offer them accurate information (e.g., “That was good thinking; here is what I think”). Consider your child’s developmental age and understanding, as well as what they seem to really want to know in the particular moment. You want to convey the idea that it is good to talk about racial and ethnic identity issues and feelings. Keep in mind that your silence is much more damning than saying the wrong thing. You can always go back to your children and say you’ve thought about a particular issue and want to talk some more about it.
Have “courageous” conversations with your children. The co-author of my book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, coined the term “courageous conversations” to name discussion about topics that create tension, discomfort, and anger. Many people avoid them—especially with children (“Let’s not talk about unpleasant subjects”). One current example would be the federal government’s brutal forced separation of children from their parents at the Mexico/California border. Many children are very aware about what has been happening—and it has been frightening. It is important to open up a painful subject like that for discussion if your children do not open it up themselves, so they do not have to try to process it alone.
Guide children to engage in critical thinking. Use children’s developing empathy (which begins forming in toddlerhood), and their evolving cognitive skills, to explore issues of unfairness directed at them or others. Even preschoolers can compare stereotypical, untrue images with accurate, respectful ones. Engage their empathy by explaining how stereotypes make fun of people and hurt their feelings. As children get older, teach them to explore the facts about a specific issue. For example, Native Americans are typically shown as all the same, all living in teepees, dressing the same, eating the same, and living as they did in the past. Do research together online—or even head to the library—and gather information on how people actually live now, exploring the diversity of their ways of living.
As children enter primary school, they will likely encounter inaccurate and stereotypical information about many racial and ethnic social identity groups. They will also form inaccurate ideas because of the invisibility of many groups. This reality is likely to continue throughout children’s schooling. Media will also play a growing role in forming children’s thinking about their own and others racial/ethnic identities. You cannot protect your children from outside-the-family influences. But you can teach them to recognize when information, images and comments are untrue and unfair.
Create a family ritual to discuss current events—including the unpleasant ones! Make sure everyone has a voice.
Help children deal with incidents of racial prejudice being directed at them or others. Always listen carefully when children tell you about racialized experiences. Try to get as much of the story as you can and help them sort out their feelings, while letting them know you empathize. Make clear that being a target of racial slurs and prejudicial behavior is NEVER THE CHILD’S FAULT! (Also let children know that you do not want them to use racial slurs or other forms of rejection because of another child’s identity.) Depending on the situation and child’s age, you may help them think about alternative ways to handle a situation of prejudice directed at them (or another child) next time they encounter it.
For example, here is a story from my own experiences with my son when he was six:
Attending a well-known private school with a mission of acceptance of all, my son arrived home one day announcing, “I am never going back to that stupid school.” I hugged him and asked as calmly and matter-of-factly as I could, “How come?” It turned out a classmate had repeatedly called him the n- word. My son asked the other child to stop. When he didn’t, my son hit him. That is what their teacher saw. She immediately benched my son, and sent the other child to play. The teacher then reminded my son that hitting was not allowed, and asked him why he did it. My son refused to reply, which made his teacher even more annoyed, and she left him in his time-out. I commiserated with my son about how name-calling hurt and how frustrating it was that the other child did not stop. I suggested we talk with the teacher the next day. We also talked about what alternative methods he could use in the future to stop a child using racial slurs against him. We did meet with the teacher the next day, and the story finally came out. The teacher agreed that what the other child had done was not okay and she would talk to him, too. My son was semi-satisfied and decided he would go back to school.
This example might be help you imagine: What would you like a teacher to do if your child is the target of racial slurs?
Teach children the history of their racial/ethnic group and of social justice movements to end racism (again matched to children’s development and age). History is the record of the experiences of groups of people. Depending on who writes it, historic narratives make some groups of people more visible and important than others. Typically, it is the people in power—most often white men—who shape historical narratives to suit their interest. This is the perspective most often found in textbooks and school curriculum. Movements for racial (and gender) justice have generated the emergence of new histories, written from the perspectives of groups that have been relatively absent or incorrectly portrayed in traditional history, as written by white men. As children reach middle and high school age, knowing the true history of their racial/ethnic groups becomes a powerful part of building positive social identity. Further, learning about the movements to resist injustice and to create more just societies enables children to deal with current issues of racism and other -isms and gives them hope for change. Families have to be diligent in supplementing the history presented in the textbooks and classes at most schools.
Model activist behavior. This last strategy is one of the most vital in a society where racism is still way too alive and active. It is essential that your children believe it is possible to counter—and even eliminate—acts of racism. Acting to stop racism and other social injustices means you walk the talk. Action may mean intervening when prejudice occurs between two people; volunteering monthly to read books that make visible the diversity of people who contribute to our country as workers, artist, professionals, farmers; working with other families to make the curriculum in your child’s class, or at whole school, more diverse and accurate; or working with others in the community to end racial profiling and other unjust police behaviors. Let your children know what you are doing—and why! If it is appropriate (depending on the nature of the activity and your children’s age), take them with you. Think of all the children at the Women’s March this past year!
Last words: Our social identities first develop over the years of childhood, but they are with us all our life. We can always grow in our understanding of who we are and how we want to live who we are. We can also grow in our understanding of others—discarding ideas and attitudes we do want and learning new ways to interact.
Louise Derman-Sparks has worked as an early childhood educator with children and adults for over 50 years. Now retired from Pacific Oaks College, she began her career as a teacher in the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool Project. She is senior author of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves, What If All the Kids are White? Anti-bias/ Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families, Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, and Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. Her most recent publication is Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide to Change. Ms. Derman-Sparks speaks and consults widely in the United States and internationally.
 Katz & Kafkian, 1997
 Ramsey, 2004
 Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001