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028: How do children form social groups?

How social groups are formed has profound implications for what we teach our children about our culture.
Professor Yarrow Dunham of Yale University tells us how we all group people in our heads according to criteria that we think are important – in many cases it’s a valuable tool that allows us to focus our mental energy.  But when we look at ideas like race and gender, we see that we tend to classify people into these groups based on criteria that may not actually be useful at all.
This episode will shed further light on Episode 6, “Wait, is my toddler racist?” and will lay the groundwork for us to study groupings based on gender in an upcoming episode.

Baron, A.S. & Dunham, Y. (2015). Representing “Us” and “Them”: Building blocks of intergroup cognition. Journal of Cognition and Development 16(5), 780-801. DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2014.1000459

Baron, A.S., Dunham, Y., Banaji, M., & Carey, S. (2014). Constraints on the acquisition of social category concepts. Journal of Cognition and Development 15(2), 238-268. DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2012.742902

Dunham, Y., Baron, A.S., & Carey, S. (2011). Consequences of “minimal” group affiliations in children. Child Development 82(3), 793-811. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01577.x

Dunham, Y., Chen, E.E., & Banaji, M.R. (2013). Two signatures of implicit intergroup attitudes: Developmental invariance and early enculturation. Psychological Science Online First. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612463081

Dunham, Y., Stepanova, E.V., Dotsch, R., & Todorov, A. (2015). The development of race-based perceptual categorization: Skin color dominates early category judgments. Developmental Science 18(3), 469-483. DOI: 10.1111/desc.12228

Rhodes, M., Leslie, S-J, Saunders, K., Dunham, Y., & Cimpian, A. (In Press). How does social essentialism affect the development of inter-group relations? Developmental Science. Retrieved from:

Richter, N., Over, H., & Dunham, Y. (2016). The effects of minimal group membership on young preschoolers’ social preferences, estimates of similarity, and behavioral attribution. Collabra 2(1), p.1-8. DOI: : 10.1525/collabra.44


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Jen:                                      [00:30]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’ve already talked quite a bit about the development of racism on Your Parenting Mojo and if you missed it, you might want to go back to episode six, which was called Wait, Is My Toddler Racist, and in that episode we talked about some of the unconscious psychological processes that are at work in all of us that can lead our children to develop racist attitudes and we learned that some of the concepts we might hold to be true if we hadn’t specifically learned about them – things like the fact that children just don’t notice racial differences unless they’re pointed out and the children won’t become racist if they aren’t explicitly taught to be – really aren’t true at all. Today I’m joined by an expert in social group formation who’s going to help us to understand how social groups form and specifically how we formulate our ideas about racial groups and will give us some practical tools we can use in our attempts to raise children who aren’t racist. Yarrow Dunham is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. He received his doctorate in education and also his masters from Harvard University and his BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Professor Dunham leads the Social Cognitive Development Lab at Yale where he and his colleagues look for answers to questions about how and why we affiliate with social groups, how we evaluate those groups, and how the concept of fairness develops in children and how all of this varies across cultures. Welcome Professor Dunham.

Dr. Dunham:                     [01:49]                   Thank you. Great to be here.

Jen:                                      [01:50]                   All right, so let’s dive in. Can you tell us what is psychological essentialism and why it’s so important to our work?

Dr. Dunham:                     [01:58]                   So psychological essentialism is the view that differences between people are based in deep internal property is probably the easiest way to think about them. In the modern view is something like genes, so what makes to people different or two groups of people different is that something inside of them is different and a key part of this idea is we think those differences are there in that essence is there, even if we can’t see it, so that creates situation in which I can get it wrong about what group. You’re right, I can think you’re in one group based on say the way you look, but I can find out something. Say something about your essence, something about your genes or maybe your ancestry that will lead me to overrule my initial idea and say that I got it wrong. So really at the end of the day of essentialism is that view that group differences are based in sort of natural and deep differences within people.

Jen:                                      [02:48]                   And that came up, I think in our previous episode on racism. It’s the idea that we all kind of form these ideas about people based on perhaps a split second view of, of what we see of them. Is that right?

Dr. Dunham:                     [03:01]                   Yes, that’s right. So we can form categories of people very quickly, we can decide that someone belongs to, in particular, certain categories, what we might think of as the most salient ways in which we group people, things like age, gender, race, these things tend to come to mind quite quickly. And even as you talked about in that last episode, even kind of automatically, in terms of as soon as we encounter someone even for the first time

Jen:                                      [03:25]                   And is it right that it’s kind of a survival mechanism that we, we wouldn’t physically be able to process the information that we needed to process. If I looked at you and try to think about who you are on an individual trade by trade basis, I wouldn’t also be able to conduct this conversation with you.

Dr. Dunham:                     [03:41]                   I mean at least it would certainly be much more difficult. And the way I think about it as categories of people are really just one kind of category and we have categories of all kinds of other things. We have categories of objects in the room, you know, tables and chairs, and we have categories of animals and plants and in all of those domains, these are really, really useful. These really simplify the job of thinking about the world. You know, if you tell me there’s a chair in the other room, I don’t have to think that hard about what the thing is like that you have in the other room and I can occasionally be surprised if it’s, you know, some fun midcentury modern thing, but I have a pretty clear idea of what’s going to be in the other room and what it’s going to be good for – sitting on say. And that’s super useful and this is true for people as well and in many domains it doesn’t bother us at all and needn’t, right? when you will go see a dentist. We have a lot of ideas about what skills this dentist ought to have and how we’re going to interact with that dentist. And that’s, as you’re pointing out, immensely useful and just kind of smoothing the interactions we have. I don’t have to go in there wondering how it all works. Right. I have a lot of prior knowledge I can draw on.

Jen:                                      [04:41]                   All right, so since we’re talking about, you know, what are some different social groups, tell us about who were the Zarpies and who were the Gorps and what did you find children’s relationships with Zarpies and Gorps?

Dr. Dunham:                     [04:52]                   So both my lab and some of my collaborators and some of this research was in collaboration with a bunch of other people, but I’ll just mention Marjorie Rhoads, a professor at NYU who has done a lot of work in the same vein and those are basically Zarpies and Gorps – those are just nonsense labels that we use to introduce children to some brand new social group that we, the researchers have made up. The reason we do this is while we do a lot of research on groups like race or gender, it gets a lot more complicated because different kids have such a different range of background experiences. They may have learned different things, experienced different things and so there’s just a lot more variability and what kids might think about those groups. But if we use these groups that we’ve created, like as Zarpie, we know that what kids know about it is absolutely nothing right when they come into our lab, they had no prior knowledge because we made them up and that way we can get a clearer view of children’s more intuitive or natural ways of thinking about groups when you pull out or abstract away from prior knowledge.

Dr. Dunham:                     [05:50]                   So that’s a little background for why we might use these kinds of funny sounding groups that are just designed to be intriguing to children. Right. And kind of fun sounding to children. And in the research that we did, basically we introduced children to a group like the Zarpies and in one case we induced them to essentialize the group. In other words, to think about the Zarpies as really being something deep and important about who you are. And another case we didn’t. We didn’t lead them to think about Zarpies and such and such an essentialized manner. And then we asked, did this manipulation – did the extent to which we lead kids to be centralized. The group change how they felt about the group that if for example, lead them to dislike the group more or to share less resources, less of the child’s own resources with them, and we did this because there’s been a long standing series of arguments about the relationship between essentialism and prejudice with a lot of people, assuming that essentialism will lead to prejudice, that if you essentially as a group, you’re more likely to consider it to be prejudice towards that group and maybe not to go on for too long, but just to motivate that intuition, why might we think that if you think groups are really, really deeply important and based on internal properties of of the people and you had learned that a group has some bad property.

Dr. Dunham:                     [07:07]                   Maybe take an example with gender. Let’s say you hold a stereotype that boys are better at math than girls. If you essentialize that category, you’re very likely to think, well, that must be something about the nature of boys and girls. That’s what it’s like to be a boys, is to be better at math, to be a girl is to be worse at math. In fact, in that case we think that’s probably not true. It’s probably much more likely that it’s cultural factors, but the danger of essential, as I think comes out pretty clearly here, if you essentialize the group and you now know that the groups differ in some way, you’re likely to think that that difference is very deep and kind of natural rather than cultural or environmental. So this is what we wanted to test in a more experimental fashion with the Zarpies. And what we found is it actually didn’t in our study, lead to more prejudice. So kids were actually pretty positive about these cartoonish Zarpies that we introduced them to. However it did lead them to not be as willing to share with them to be in some sense less generous when they were sharing resources with the Zarpies.

Jen:                                      [08:06]                   And this is when they are a member of the Zarpie group or when they are a member of the Gorp group?

Dr. Dunham:                     [08:10]                   So in this one, children are not actually members of either groups or just learning about this as another group, but in that sense the Zarpies are kind of an outgroup as a group to which they do not belong and this was a little bit surprising to us. So we sort of replicated it a few times to make sure we really had it right. But what we think is going on now as if you think about it a little more, there can be a really good or really bad or really positive or really negative group that you might have essentialize. So there’s not a necessary connection. We think now between sort of valence like how good or bad the group is and whether you essentially it, but we think that essentialism essentially maybe a bad choice of words, but essentialism leads us to really think of the boundary between groups as very rigid and strong. And when you do, it seems that kids elect to not share as much as they think about that group is really distinct and different from them. They think, well, I’ll keep my resources to myself rather than sharing, but they don’t necessarily think the group is bad.

Jen:                                      [09:07]                   Okay, alright. And then didn’t you do a follow up experiment where you made the children a part of the Zarpie group and tell them that they were also Zarpies.

Dr. Dunham:                     [09:16]                   So we’ve done studies a lot like this. Not always using things like Gorps and Zarpies; sometimes just using something even simpler like a blue group and a red group. And in these kinds of studies we and lots of people have done these studies now with children going all the way down to about age three. And so for example, in some of the studies I’ve done in this line, if you simply tell a child you’re going to be in the red group, why don’t you put on this red shirt so you really remember which group you’re going to be in. We find that actually that in and of itself is enough to get kids to like their own group more. So that’s enough to get kids to think. Yeah, the red group seems like it’s probably better. And also to even be willing to share more with members of their own group and so on.

Jen:                                      [09:55]                   Yeah. I’ve noticed that this phenomenon is alive and well in adults as well.

Dr. Dunham:                     [10:00] Absolutely.

Jen:                                      [10:01]                   Yeah. I remember sitting in a. I actually went to Yale for my first masters and I did some classes in the business school and I remember one of the professors saying, you know, you guys are all here; you’ve come from disparate walks of life. You don’t have very much in common. I mean obviously in business school you do have some things in common, but you are going to be enticed to think of each other as a sort of a cohesive unit and do favors for each other and help each other get ahead in your careers based on the fact that you’re all sitting together in the classroom, which really to a large extent is pretty arbitrary.

Dr. Dunham:                     [10:35]                   Yeah, absolutely. I think this is an immensely important point. Thinking about how humans, reason about groups and even about the development of racism, because what it says is we’re really flexible in what groups we decide to care about or affiliate with and we’re not just flexible. Some of them are essentially things that were through maybe accidents of birth randomly assigned to us. Liking your local sports team. Even race is like that in a way, right? You arrive at some point, realize that you’ve been assigned to a certain racial category by some combination of genes and cultural history, so the sports team, the town you live in this school and not the other school. There are so many of these kinds of examples. TV shows do like this all the time by dividing people into groups that show like survivor or something like this, putting on a red versus the yellow bandana and all of these kinds of cases. Just making that division and beginning to think of the world in terms of us and them is enough to get all of this inter-group thinking kind of running; it gets it all kind of kicking up into gear and starts to affect our preferences.

Jen:                                      [11:39]                   I guess that explains why they then take one person from the blue team and then put them on the red team on Survivor just to mix that up and drive them all crazy…

Dr. Dunham:                     [11:49] Exactly. Exactly. Stress the system a little bit.

Jen:                                      [11:53]                   Yeah. Okay. Cool. All right. I want to backtrack to something you said a few minutes ago, which is the essential ism seems to be important about the way that we formulate ideas, but you can’t say that because a person forums these essentialist categories about groups that that is going to lead to negative feelings about people who are uninsured group and then from there to something like racism. So if that is not the case, what do we think is going on?

Dr. Dunham:                     [12:18]                   Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think what we have to think about is what happens next. So once you’re thinking about groups, so in fact maybe I’ll just step back one step even further back and of just think about the situation of say a three year old beginning to become aware that humans in the world are clustered into kinds or types, that there are all kinds of people and there are many, many kinds. I mean we’ve made focus on it in a conversation like this about race and gender, but if we think about it, we divide people in dozens and dozens of ways. So think about occupation and religion and nationality and where you’re from, and all kinds of things. The language you speak, there are so many ways we do this and children are looking up at really this kind of dizzying array of kinds of people and they have to figure out what’s going on.

Dr. Dunham:                     [13:06]                   I kinda like to think about them as sort of naive sociologists. They’re trying to figure out how their world is structured and importantly, what am I; what groups do I fall into? Who is sort of in my tribe, who is the US in this sort of us and them world that I’m trying to sort of navigate through and so once they have learned that say there are blues and reds or is Zarpies and Gorps or black people and white people, they now have some categories they can make use of. Once they have those, once they go, okay, I belong to this group and not that group, they’re now going to start looking out into the world to see what they can learn about those groups and if it’s an essentialized group like race where that boundary feels to them very rigid and important. They may begin to notice lots of other things like for example, status differences that are out in the world and some follow up research that I didn’t do myself.

Dr. Dunham:                     [13:54]                   But Marjorie, who I mentioned before at NYU, Marjorie Rhoads did do in that same Zarpie and Gorp kind of experiment, she now added status differences. So you would now learn that one group was, say wealthier, had access to lots of cool toys and houses and had lots of resources while another group didn’t and when she added that element, then suddenly essentialism was linked to prejudice. And we think that what’s going on there is once you thought, oh, that group is, that group has low status, they don’t have a lot of good stuff. If you essentialize as the group you think that must be because of the nature of the group, that must be something deep and important about the group and that’s why they have that lower status. So when you add these extra ingredients, suddenly children are likely to say that difference must be there for a really deep reason.

Jen:                                      [14:41]                   Okay. And so you mentioned that this starts to happen at around three and I’m, I’m very curious as to how that process begins. And I’m going to tell you a bit of a story that I hope doesn’t condemn my daughter to something like failing to get into college one day. But I was doing some research on the computer a few days ago when she came in from her nap and to see what I was doing and there was a picture of an African American girl on the screen. And so with no prompting whatsoever, I just kind of picked her up because she wanted to see what I was doing. And she said “she’s dirty.” And at that moment I realized that she’s not commenting about anything related to race or the cultural or emotional baggage that any of that brings. I think she’s just noticing that the person in that picture had skin that was darker in color than hers. And she’s noticed that dirt makes her own skin dark. And she kind of made the logical assumption that the girl was dirty. And I wonder if you’ve done work or if you know of others who have done work to help us understand how do you get from that point which seems to be just a very innocent observation about the experiences that she has had with her skin being dirty and looking darker and how you get from there to the ideas of group formation?

Dr. Dunham:                     [15:57]                   That’s a great question. I think as a scientist, it’s to me a very interesting empirical question. Whether your hypothesis is right or whether there might have been more going on…

Jen:                                      [16:05]                   It is my assumption based on the tone of how she said it and yes…

Dr. Dunham:                     [16:10]                   It’s certainly possible. And I think one, I mean one way to answer the question, it’s like I just realized that for some category to be useful to a category of people or a category of furniture, you have to be able to tell what objects or, what people belong to each category. You have to tell who’s who. So for a category of people like race or gender, to be useful, you have to have some ability to figure out, is this person in front of me in this one or that one? Which group do they belong to? And to do that, we generally rely on a lot of perceptual cues. So in this case we relied on race. We often rely on cues like skin color and a bunch of other more complicated cues about how faces are structured and hair and all kinds of things, but certainly things like skin color are one of the kind of entryways into a lot of kinds of categories and this is really calling attention to that perceptual component.

Dr. Dunham:                     [16:59]                   We have to be able to tell who’s who and once you can do that and all of the other things we’re talking about are really going to be able to spring up. I think one just sort of practical implication is this helps to explain why young kids are pretty interested in, say, gender and age a little bit later and race, but other what you might think of as more abstract social categories like say religion or nationality tend to emerge in children thinking a couple years later probably because it’s just a lot harder to look out into the world and tell is this person an American or French or is this person Christian or Jewish and so on. This is also just add one last aside where culture really becomes important if you go to a country like Israel or maybe a place like Northern Ireland, you might find very different patterns because the local cultural salience is really different. Religion might be really important in those environments in a way that it’s not for the average child here in North America.

Jen:                                      [17:52]                   Oh yeah, that’s really interesting. Growing up in the UK and just thinking about how to put that into context of somewhere like Northern Ireland where you have Catholics and Protestants living together who have historically not gotten on very well for a number of years, but who probably look pretty similar, uh, you know, they’re all white, and at that point maybe it’s things like, you know, do I see them in church on Sundays and do they go to my nursery school because there’s environments are probably fairly segregated.

Dr. Dunham:                     [18:26]                   That’s exactly right. And again, just reinforces the idea that culture really matters. And when we get a little later to thinking about how could we change, say the development, how can we intervene on the development of prejudice? This is where I think we can have a little bit of a hopeful note. I don’t think that any particular dimension of categorization is necessarily inevitable. Cultures have a huge role in shaping what kids pay attention to cultures and parents – so we’re directly or more subtly telling children these are important dimensions of personhood that you should pay attention to and that happens in these really, really different ways in different cultures.

Jen:                                      [18:59]                   Yeah. And I dunno if that scares me more or less, that it’s a product of culture…

Dr. Dunham:                     [19:06]                   It’s an opportunity, but also, yeah. Also a scary aspect of the sponge-like nature of our children.

Jen:                                      [19:13]                   Yeah. All right. So let’s head in that direction then. I want to think about the importance of experience and theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky, who we’ve talked about on this show, and talked about the importance of children’s experiences. Piaget focuses more on the experience itself, you know, the physical experience with something. And Vygotsky talks more about the social element of that experience and I’m curious as to how that contributes to the development of the child’s views on race and on social groups.

Dr. Dunham:                     [19:48]                   So I mean, I tend to certainly certainly think that there’s truth in both of those perspectives, that there’s both a lot of what you might think of kind of internal, the child kind of grappling with trying to develop an understanding of the world. However, especially in a domain like what kinds of people are there in my world that seems to me like it’s always gonna just be inadequate on its own. And the kinds of ideas I have in mind is that any two people are similar and different and essentially an infinite number of ways. There are so many ways we could divide people up. We could divide up tall people in short people, people with bigger feet and smaller feet, people with blue eyes and Brown eyes, as in the sort of famous example that you talked about last time.

Dr. Dunham:                     [20:30]                   There are so many available and easy to perceive dimensions of personhood that we DON’T use as the basis for clustering people in very meaningful ways. But other ones, like for example, something like skin color, race we do use and what children need to figure out is not just how could I do at, but how does my culture do it, and that’s always going to require social input from generally from their cultural elders, right? They’re going to be noticing how do adults around me sort of structure their social world, how do they think about what differences are important? And then beyond that, even just how does the world look? I mean, it’s always struck me that one thing that I would be surprised that the kids don’t notice pretty early is that as you moved through, say your city you live in, as you move through different neighborhoods, people start to look different than systematic ways.

Dr. Dunham:                     [21:16]                   People aren’t just randomly distributed, people are clustered in with other people that may look more similar to them along say racial or ethnic lines. And that’s a signal that’s a very powerful implicit signal, I think to a child that this is a way my world is structured. I better pay attention to this. I better care about this. So both directly from parents but also from that kind of subtler backdrop of how we organize societies, there’s information there and it kind of a Vygotskian sense for the child to be really looking up at it and going, oh, okay, this makes this, you know, this is important.

Jen:                                      [21:47]                   Yeah. So even if you’re not providing messages, your children are receiving messages.

Dr. Dunham:                     [21:51] Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, people who study bias in the media and you know, stereotypical representations of women or minorities in say movies or on the news and so on, like this is also what those people really want to emphasize that our home is not a sort of a castle that – you know, there still are a lot of external messages coming in from the broader world that we just can’t screen out. Even if we were able to create a sort of a, you know, a home that was completely free of bias.

Jen:                                      [22:20]                   Yeah. Okay. And so I’m wondering if this is a tendency that’s common across all cultures. Do you see this everywhere?

Dr. Dunham:                     [22:28]                   Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think so there might be a little bit of debate about this, but I think most people would agree that some very basic tendency towards us and them some basic tendency to say who’s like me and who’s not is essentially a human universal that you’ll find it in every culture, but as I was kind of emphasizing a little bit before, the way in which it plays out is really, really different and even the importance placed on a category like race can vary in different parts of the United States are in different countries. We’ve done a little bit of research in Brazil, for example, where they have racial categories that look kind of familiar to an American, what are constructed a little bit differently and thought about differently there. So the same thing is going to be formed very differently across cultural boundaries. So I think there’ll always be some sort of us and them, some groups that kids and adults will care about what they are is actually surprisingly variable.

Jen:                                      [23:21]                   Oh, okay. So can you give us an example of that? Like how did the, how did the categories or the things within the categories vary in different cultures?

Dr. Dunham:                     [23:28]                   So for example, in Brazil they kind of lay intuition… Race and socioeconomic status are actually much more closely aligned. They even have a – there’s a phrase in Brazilian Portuguese that “money whitens.” The idea being that your racial category can actually be thought of as shifting a little bit if your economic status changes. So this seems very weird to us, right? That seems very anti essentialist and that this external thing can change. You can get more money or move into a different occupation or a different neighborhood and suddenly people’s views of your race might change, but that is not so counterintuitive to the way that those categories are constructed in Brazil.

Jen:                                      [24:10]                   Wow, that’s fascinating. OK, so as we start to sort of think about how we wrap all this together and provide information to parents that they can actually use to potentially a short circuit this process I want to tie together the threads about, you know, the fact that essential ism in a way is sort of inherent to the way that we think, you know, we need to form these categories to move through our day, but but that doesn’t directly lead to racism or even prejudice. It’s moderated mediated by effects of culture and experiences that children have. So how can we use what we know to help our children move towards. I think the term post racial is potentially over-used, but you know, potentially having children who are not as racist as we were; as the previous generation.

Dr. Dunham:                     [25:00]                   Even just add one more complexity to what are all the factors you just put in there. While I think we are naturally and almost inevitably predisposed towards categorizing people. All of those categories are not essentialized. So you know, if you think about categories of occupation, we don’t really essentialize as doctors all that much for example, but we do essentialize race and gender categories. Many religious categories are not that deeply essentialized being a Christian for example. No, they’re different. People will have a little bit different intuitions here, but. Sorry, go ahead…

Jen:                                      [25:34]                   Oh, I was just thinking about… There’s a joke that I had heard about that how a parent takes a child to the doctor and then comes home at the end of the day and, and I forget exactly what was wrong with them, but the point of the story is that you can’t understand which parent took the child to the doctor because you assume that the doctor was a male and because they haven’t been referred to by gender all the way through and your brain can’t compute that the doctor could have been a female,

Dr. Dunham:                     [26:02]                   Right? Yeah. There’s one of these old riddles where the doctor’s operating on the patient and goes, “oh my God, this is my son,” but you know, it’s not the father. Well, what do you do? Yes, exactly. These are about right. The strength of some of our sort of gender stereotypes about these occupational roles, I guess. Yeah. What I wanted to get out there was that our children can learn about a social group and not essentialize it. They can then essentialize it and not necessarily hold prejudice with respect to it. So that’s just one more kind of mediator along this chain that we have some ability to intervene on them and there are things that we can do that increase the tendency of children to essentialize social groups or decrease it. One of the most common ones here is using what’s sometimes called generic language.

Dr. Dunham:                     [26:46]                   So this a little bit. This is a term from linguistics, but the idea is very simple. Everyone will be familiar with it if we say boys don’t cry, we’re not talking about any particular boy. We’re talking about the generic category of boys. And it turns out that if kids hear this kind of language, even about some novel group like a Zarpie, that will lead them to a centralized group, it’s as if they’re saying, well, in your language, you’re telling me there’s something fundamental about boys which has them not cry. Therefore, there must be something fundamental and deep about what it means to be a boy. So our language sends cues to our children that they should essentially a given social category and maybe not others.

Jen:                                      [27:26]                   And so just to tease that out, what you’re saying is that from that, if you tell me that the boys don’t cry, I’m not just learning that boys don’t cry, I’m learning that there is something unique about this group called boys and that there may be other things that I can find out or the people are going to tell me about boys that can be useful to me.

Dr. Dunham:                     [27:45] Exactly. Another way it’s sometimes put is that the intrinsic properties of being a boy, not crying, being strong, being tough, you know, being good at math. Who knows what that our language can cue to children that this is, there’s something intrinsic about being a boy which will lead to these other outcomes, which is essentially to say it’s teaching them a very, very strong and kind of rigid stereotype. And yeah, I mean there’s been some beautiful work looking at gender stereotyping using gender labels where they experimentally looked at classrooms that had some teachers use their sort of normal language say, okay, boys and girls, let’s line up for lunch. And you know, these were all pretty progressive classrooms… No teachers were explicitly teaching gender stereotypes. They’re just using a lot of that language versus other classrooms where they would use, as you probably know, many preschools now try to avoid some of this gender labeling.

Dr. Dunham:                     [28:33]                   They might say, okay friends, let’s line up for lunch and so on. And it turned out that avoiding those gendered terms all the time actually reduced the tendency of kids to rely on gender stereotypes. So this is one I think practical example and again, I think what we need to remember is that our language is a signal to our children. If I’m referring to gender, even when I’m just having people line up, well there’s a subtle hint there that gender is incredibly important. We need to think about it even when we’re just getting ready to go to lunch. You’re not even in a context that seems to be really that gendered or that much about gender roles. Um, so kids are picking up on this. If you’re referring to my gender all the time, gender must be important.

Jen:                                      [29:15]                   Okay. Alright. So that, that makes a lot of sense. And I’m actually looking to find somebody who can speak with us about gender identity development so we can talk about that after the episode.

Dr. Dunham:                     [29:24] Absolutely.

Jen:                                      [29:25]                   Okay. So, but how to apply this to the construct of race, you know, it’s not often you hear, okay, all white people over here and all black people over here anymore, luckily. Thank goodness. So, so if it doesn’t seem as though that construct is applicable to race as it as it is to some of the other groups where it is still acceptable in some sense to divide people by group. So it is, is if that doesn’t seem to be having as much of an effect there, what is having an effect in that group?

Dr. Dunham:                     [29:54]                   That’s a great question. I think some of the things you touched on a little bit in your previous episode about racism and in childhood or in toddlerhood, one of the things that’s just very, very striking is how many parents, particularly white parents, just don’t want to talk about race at all and in a way this is almost the polar opposite of what I what I just talked about where kids are getting cues from the use of gendered language say, but I think they’re also getting cues from the absence of language about a category that they can just look out in the world and clearly see is important. So if you’ve noticed, for example, that race has correlated with the neighborhoods you live in and with the occupations that you occupy and all of these different kinds of things and yet no one wants to talk about it or perhaps even worse…

Dr. Dunham:                     [30:40]                   You see, you notice that your parents are uncomfortable talking about these are also sending signals, I think the children that were in the presence of something really important, maybe something dangerous or taboo or shameful and that’s going to at least sort of a heightened children’s attention. This is something that kids need to figure out. If you’re in the presence of a taboo, you know, in any culture you need to figure out what it is so you don’t mess it up, right. And so these cues can actually make kids or these absence of cues or you know, maybe a cue in terms of parental nervousness or something like that. Those are certainly sending signals to children that there’s something important and something that’s, you know, sort of at the same time kind of confined to some kind of silence from inside the family.

Jen:                                      [31:23]                   Yeah. It reminds me of an episode I did recently that will be live by the time your episode is live with Salema Noon, who’s a sex educator and she was talking a lot about the message that you’re silent sense about talking about sex and some of the suggestions she had for parents were things like, you know, you’re in the car and your child blindsides you with a question that you have no idea how to answer. You don’t have to come up with an answer on the spot. It’s perfectly fine to say, you know, “I’m so glad you asked that question. I appreciate that. It took a lot of courage to ask that question. I think it’s important that we discuss it properly and we don’t have time right now. I’d like to discuss it after the football game or after we come back from school” or whatever it is, and don’t use that as an excuse to think, oh, thank goodness she’s going to forget by the time they finish school and never come back to it again. But use that time to gather your thoughts and do some research and figure out what you’re going to say. And then the whole thing seems to become a lot less threatening to the parents than if you had to come up with an answer on the spot to, you know, Mama, what’s black and white or something like that.

Dr. Dunham:                     [32:27]                   So I think that’s exactly right. Then you can create the space and do it in a more thoughtful way rather than the sort of panicked way we might as parents know when something very difficult sprung on us. And then when we do have those conversations, I mean as you talked about in your last episode, efforts to reduce prejudice have had at best modest success. That’s probably even painting a really rosy picture. I don’t have the kind of magic bullet here, but some of it avenues that we’re interested in is are there ways to kind of harness other things that children are really interested in it take to get them thinking about this in a way that maybe matches the ideology we want children to adopt and the specific kind of thing. I’m thinking about his kids and over the same age as I really intensely interested in fairness and equality, equal treatment, and if you think about it, that’s a pretty natural inroad to talk about sort of the problems are the failings of our culture at least historically and probably presently as well when it comes to issues around race, around gender, around inequality of different social groups, around discrimination.

Dr. Dunham:                     [33:35]                   So you know, most children will be, their intuition will be very moved by the idea that it’s unfair to treat people differently because of something about the way they look, whether it’s their skin color, their hair color, whether they’re tall or short and so on. These are ideas that you don’t have to, you know, you don’t have to work hard to get kids to grasp that intuition and so it at least creates a sort of an entryway to have some discussions about this in terms that will be very comprehensible to children.

Jen:                                      [34:04]                   Yeah. Thanks for that little advertorial for a your colleagues’ episode which will also be live by the time yours is… We talked with Peter Blake and Katie McAuliffe a couple of weeks ago, if you want to find that episode that’s at So yeah, lots of diving into their research on how fairness develops and when it develops and things like that. And I know you’ve worked with them as well.

Dr. Dunham:                     [34:26]                   Yes, absolutely. Yes. And I think the other kind of thing I think that maybe it’s worth putting on the table is that, so you talked about, and we’ve talked a little bit about that kind of parent-child interaction, but as we alluded to a little bit before, children also occupy broader environments. They go to schools, they go to play groups, they go out into the world and there is pretty good evidence that positive exposure to diversity does have some protective and positive effects. This has an old history and psychology sometimes called the contact hypothesis. So the hypothesis that contact with people different from us tends to lower or decrease our negativity towards those people. I think the intuition is pretty easy to get. I mean, it’s, it’s much easier to hold a stereotype of some group that you never, ever, ever have to encounter.

Dr. Dunham:                     [35:12] Nothing is ever going to push back against that stereotype. But if you have stereotypes of a group and you start to spend a lot of time with several members of those groups, your stereotypes are going to get violated in a lot of ways and that’s going to teach you something that’s gonna teach you that may be that stereotype is not the best guide to judging those people. So that’s another thing I think that we can think about is I’m trying to, you know, this is all, of course, there are lots of practical challenges here. We all live with the we live in and the environments we live in. But those are, the positive experiences are useful and there isn’t even evidence that what’s sometimes called indirect contact has positive experiences. So another colleague of mine, Christina Olson at the University of Washington, has done some research in which children just see themes of either same-race play playgroups or interracial playgroups. And they find that just having, just sort of passively observed a few scenes of interracial play leads, children to be more positively predisposed towards an African American that they subsequently meet. In other words, it just. And I think what’s going on here is kids are just seeing, kids are getting an, a sense of kind of a counter stereotypical message. They’re getting the message, it’s totally normal and fine to be interacting across racial boundaries. And they seem to internalize that quite quickly over the course of sort of a single experimental study.

Jen:                                      [36:29]                   Okay. So just to kind of pull out what I think is the common thread in all the different things you’ve just mentioned, it’s going back to the idea of Piaget and Vygotsky. It’s the experience itself. That’s the powerful thing. It’s, you know, yes I can as a parent can provide messages to my child and talk to her about things. But at the end of the day, she forms a lot of her views on the world from the things that she experiences herself. And again, that goes back to the culture thing of in a way it’s awesome and in a way it’s kind of scary and I guess from a practical perspective, thinking about what are some of the ways we can use this, I’ve read of one example of children who are bathing different colored dolls in a nursery environment, and you know, maybe one of the children points to one of the black dolls and says “she’s dirty,” and the teacher says, “well, what if we scrub her really, really hard?” And so the teacher scrubs the doll and the children scrub the doll and the blackness doesn’t come off and they realize, “oh, this is not dirt.” And they experienced for themselves that it’s not dirt. And so that, that I, I haven’t seen any. I haven’t seen any experimentation or research that says that, that, you know, specific method has any effect. But based on what you’re saying, it seems as though that kind of activity could be useful.

Dr. Dunham:                     [37:47]                   I think it’s certainly possible, yes, that can be useful, and one way to think about all of that together is a lot of learning is driven by error, by we have a prediction and something happens that violates that prediction of, that makes us go, oh aha! Wait, I have to stop and think for a minute. All of these sorts of stereotype violations have that same kind of character.

Jen:                                      [38:08]                   Yeah. Yeah. And so on the kind of social experience idea, you know my child goes to a nursery where, I mean frankly there aren’t any black people. There just aren’t. And there are none that I’m aware of in the immediate vicinity of our house either. And so I worry about the messages that, that sends to her, but at the same time, you know, do I have to work with the nursery to find a black doctor so that she understands that all doctors aren’t white. I mean, is, it seems, it seems a very difficult position to be in frankly, to think about how we move beyond these constructs that we’ve set up for ourselves, because it was the one nursery we could get her into on short notice. And we find ourselves in this situation, it’s a fantastic place and the teachers are fantastic and the kids are fantastic, but it has this kind of undercurrent there that I’m not sure what to do with as a parent.

Dr. Dunham:                     [39:04]                   Yeah. And I don’t have any magic fixes unfortunately there too. I think it’s, in a way you talked about the downside of culture. I mean one of the, I think real sad aspects of American culture in recent years is that it’s only grown increasingly segregated. So these sorts of contact opportunities these ways, these opportunities to have those stereotypes challenged are in many for many people decreasing, not increasing despite the fact that the country as a whole is only becoming kind of increasingly multiracial, mixed racial, increasingly diverse. I think there may be some avenues through this sort of idea of extended contact where you know, if you know, if your child is, is in various other ways being exposed to children’s books, movies, things like that, nail films, what have you. That that sort of just sort of depict without necessarily – they don’t have to be about the experience of diversity as much as just depicting people who vary along say racial and ethnic lines going about their lives and in particular maybe depicting that here’s a white person who has black friends say in this story book, even if it’s not, you know, even if a lot of attention isn’t called to it and that’s not sort of the point.

Dr. Dunham:                     [40:14]                   Those are the kinds of signals that kids are picking up on and the signals that kids that can sort of challenge what a child might otherwise think. Which is that, oh, well, being white is in part about hanging out with other white people.

Jen:                                      [40:25]                   All right everybody, you got to put Grey’s Anatomy on the TV tonight and put your kids in front of it. Not where I thought this episode would end up! Having books I think is, is one thing that parents can do to, uh, to depict, um, you know, cross racial relationships. And we have some of those… I guess we’ll have to draw up a list of, of children’s books that can potentially help us with that and that for this and the references for this episode. Well, thank you so much for joining us. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and we’ve gotten some really practical tools that we can use and I’m, I’m sorry that you can’t solve the world’s racial problems for us. I wish you wish you could but I, I feel as though I have a better path forward now than I did before, so thank you very much.

Dr. Dunham:                     [41:08] Absolutely. My pleasure.

Jen:                                      [41:10]                   So if you’re interested in learning more about Yarrow Dunham’s work, you can visit his website That’s his Social Cognitive Development Lab. And if you would like to find the references for today’s episode, you can do that at

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at

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