Next time you're in a bookstore, look for children's books that show children of varied genders and ethnicities being friends. A study published in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development found that children who read such stories had more favorable views of an otherwise stigmatized group.
Psychological research shows that from a very young age children express prejudice and favoritism for their own ethnic, racial and gender groups. While knowing that a member of your ethnic group is friends with a member of another ethnic group has been shown to reduce prejudice in adults and adolescents, it's never been examined in young children. This study, by researchers from the University of Kent in Canterbury and the University of Sussex in Brighton, both in the United Kingdom, was designed to investigate whether making children aged 5 to 11 aware of friendships between their group and a stigmatized group could make the children feel more favorable towards the stigmatized group.
The researchers focused on changing children's attitudes towards refugees because refugees are a salient, stigmatized group in the area in which the study was conducted.
The researchers used fictional stories to present the friendships to children. The stories featured members of the participant's group (English children) and members of the stigmatized group (refugee children) in a friendship context. Children took part in story reading in small groups once a week for six weeks for about 20 minutes.
Compared to a control group that did not read any stories, children who read the stories believed refugees held more positive and fewer negative attributes. The children were also more likely to say they would like to play with refugees.
Additionally, the researchers found that the stories succeeded best in changing children's orientation towards refugees if the text in the story emphasized the groups the children in the story belonged to (refugee or English), while at the same time emphasizing something the characters had in common, i.e., the school they attended. It seemed the stories worked by letting the children see themselves and other English children as being close to refugees. This means they were more likely to see refugees as being similar to both themselves and other English children.
"Importantly, reading friendship stories had the same effect across the age range tested here," said lead author Lindsey Cameron, PhD, from the University of Kent. This suggests that the intervention is as effective with 5-year-olds as with 11-year-olds, she said.
"Overall," she said, "these findings suggest that reading about friendships between different groups could be a possible prejudice-reduction tool for use in schools with children as young as 5."
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 77, Issue 5, Changing children's intergroup attitudes towards refugees: Testing different models of extended contact by Cameron L, Rutland A, Douch R (all University of Kent) and Brown R (University of Sussex). Copyright 2006 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.