Young black children's development affected by messages on race

September 17, 2002

How young black children learn about race may affect their cognitive and behavioral development, suggest study results.

"This is the first study examining the influence of racial socialization practices on the development of very young children," says lead study author Margaret O'Brien Caughy, Sc.D, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Racial socialization can be described as the practice of communicating messages about race to children "who are black in a society in which being black has negative connotations," according to the study, quoting a noted child development expert. Depending on parents' values, racial socialization can emphasize achievement, morality, racial equality and self-esteem; the minority experience, including awareness of discrimination; or black culture.

Caughy and colleagues conducted home visits with 200 African American families in Baltimore, Md., all with children between 3 and 4.5 years of age. They interviewed primary caregivers and their children, and administered surveys to measure cognitive and behavioral skills, social development and racial socialization. The racial socialization survey measured components including racial pride, the promotion of mistrust, preparation for bias and spirituality. The researchers also measured racial socialization in the home environment by noting the presence of items such as Afrocentric toys, fabrics and prints.

The researchers found that racial socialization was a major component of parenting. Previous studies reported lower rates of racial socialization.

"The prevalence of racial socialization messages utilized by these African American parents of very young children was surprisingly high," says Caughy.

Some types of racial socialization were more popular than others. Nearly 90 percent of parents conveyed racial or cultural pride messages, while only 64 percent reported promoting mistrust.

The child study participants were equally likely to get racial socialization messages whether their parents were rich or poor, well educated or not, or whether the children were male or female. A previous study of young adults found that girls were more likely to get racial pride messages, while boys received a greater emphasis on preparation for bias.

"It may be that gender differences in racial socialization practices do not emerge until middle adolescence," says Caughy. The study results are published in the September/October issue of Child Development.

The researchers also found that most of the families they interviewed had Afrocentric items in their homes, but the wealthier families had more of them, including Afrocentric toys, books, magazines and music. Children from home environments rich in African American culture had greater factual knowledge and better problem-solving skills -- a finding that held true even when the researchers took family income into account. Also, racial pride was associated with fewer behavior problems.

"Our findings suggest that racial socialization practices and home environments can impact cognitive and behavioral outcomes for very young African American children," says Caughy. The researchers suggest that future studies should examine the longer-term effects of these socialization practices and the home environment on the cognitive and behavioral development of children.
The research was supported by a grant from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Jackie Preston at (713) 500-3033 or
Child Development: Contact Angela Dahm Mackay at (734) 998-7310 or

Center for Advancing Health

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