Posted on June 22, 2011

Pre-Schoolers Prefer Same-Ethnicity Playmates: Study

Tristin Hopper, National Post, June 21, 2011

Along with finger painting and story time, Canadian preschools are also spilling over with ethnic tension, according to a study released by Concordia University.

“We found Asian-Canadian and French-Canadian children seemed to prefer interacting with kids of the same ethnic background,” said report co-author Nadine Girouard in a Tuesday release.

At mixed-race daycares throughout Montreal, researchers took Asian-Canadian children and French Canadian children, ranging in age from three to five years old, and paired them up in rooms with “attractive toys” such as a marble track or a Sesame Street-themed playhouse. When put in with members of the same race, children happily played together. When mixed with different races, however, the children usually opted to play alone. Preschoolers “express a preference for same-ethnic interactions,” reads the study.

The revelation is nothing new. For more than 60 years, psychologists have been finding evidence of barely-toilet-trained children exhibiting prejudicial tendencies. In the late 1940s, American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark tried to gauge the inherent prejudices of children by showing them black and white dolls and asking which was better. Whether the child was white or black, the child “indicated a clear-cut preference for white.” “It is clear that the Negro child, by the age of five is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status,” the pair wrote. Their research was ultimately a factor in the 1954 US Supreme Court Decision to de-segregate public schools. In subsequent American studies, researchers have found black and white children self-segregating as early as kindergarten.

Prejudice in children first starts to crop up right around the age of three or four, says Frances Aboud, a McGill University psychology professor specializing in the development of racism in children. The first time children come up against different ethnicities, their initial reaction is “nobody in my family looks like that,” says Ms. Aboud. “Sometimes kids even go so far as to say that a child is intentionally trying not to look like him,” she says.

The Montreal study attributes the rift between the Asian-Canadian and French Canadian children to nothing more than cultural awkwardness. Rather than being driven apart by animosity, the two groups are simply baffled by one another. Raised in a culture of social restraint, the Asian-Canadian children were more likely to try to interact non-verbally with the French-Canadians by silently “cooperating” in playing with a toy. French-Canadian children, meanwhile, would try to engage their Asian-Canadian playmates in conversation. After a few confusing minutes, the two children usually found it easier to part ways and play in silence.

However, the “beauty” of the Montreal study, says Ms. Girouard, is that the Asian-Canadians and French-Canadians ultimately learned to overcome their differences and play together. “Children found mutually satisfactory and effective means of engaging one another,” reads the study. Once-subdued Asian-Canadians began to talk louder and French-Canadians responded by quieting down. “Each was able to import the culture of the other,” says Ms. Girouard. “Children, regardless of their ethnicity, want to play together and understand each other.”