Not That Innocent: Teaching Kids About Morals, Race & Mental Health

Do preschoolers need therapy? Are babies racist? Two stories this week challenge the notion that kids live in an innocent world, free of the problems and stereotypes that complicate adult life.

Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal talks about a rising trend of assigning mental-health workers to preschools. These therapists and consultants can help teachers resolve kids' problems, like tantrums and rough play, before they get out of hand. Shallenberger writes,

The idea of assigning mental-health workers to child-care centers and preschools is jarring; I was skeptical when I first heard the idea. Children so small shouldn't need mental-health help, it seems, and having therapists or counselors working in classrooms seems to risk stigmatizing them with labels, or simply interfering with the innocence of childhood.

But therapists can help preschools reduce their expulsion rates, which are currently three times higher than those in kindergarten through high school. Preschool teachers also say behavior problems are rising, perhaps because preschool is becoming more academic or learning disabilities more prevalent. And if depression can occur in kids as young as three, maybe having therapists on hand isn't such a stretch.

Perhaps even more controversial than giving very young children therapy is talking to them about race. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Newsweek, researcher Birgitte Vittrup asked parents of white five- to seven-year-olds to talk to their kids about racial equality, with or without accompanying videos. She hoped the conversations would change kids' racial attitudes. They didn't — because parents couldn't actually bring themselves to have them. Rather than talking to kids explicitly about race, the parents "reverted to the vague 'Everybody's equal' phrasing" — or dropped out of the study early because it made them too uncomfortable. Another study found that 75% of white parents never, or almost never, bring up race with their kids.

Bronson and Merryman write that parents may believe "we should let children know a time when skin color does not matter." But kids are never really oblivious to skin color. A study of six-month-olds showed they stared longer at faces with different skin color than their own, implying that they perceived these faces as more unfamiliar. And an experiment by Rebecca Bigler of the University of Texas shows that children may be "developmentally prone to in-group favoritism." Assigned to wear red or blue T-shirts for just three weeks, preschoolers began to believe that kids who wore the same color shirt as them were more likely to be nice and smart.

So it may be better to address racial prejudice with children head-on, rather than pretending it doesn't exist. Parents — especially white parents — may be so uncomfortable discussing race that they dance around the issue or shush children when they bring it up. But kids may not understand abstract words like "equality," and it doesn't do them much good to learn that all discussion of race is taboo. Bronson and Merryman say that white parents could take a cue from minority families, who are typically much more likely to talk about racial issues. One psychologist, they write, found that "minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history," and that this is beneficial for their self-confidence. Bronson and Merryman add,

That leads to the question that everyone wonders but rarely dares to ask. If "black pride" is good for African-American children, where does that leave white children? It's horrifying to imagine kids being "proud to be white." Yet many scholars argue that's exactly what children's brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. So a pride message would not just be abhorrent-it'd be redundant.

In fact, white children may need not pride, but a little guilt. Rebecca Bigler found that after a lesson on Jackie Robinson, white children had much better attitudes towards blacks if they learned that Robinson had faced discrimination from white people. Bigler says the lesson "made them feel some guilt. It knocked down their glorified view of white people." Instilling guilt in innocent children may sound cruel — but again, kids aren't really innocent when it comes to race. They tend to think their own group is the best one, perhaps especially if that group happens also to be socioeconomically advantaged. Teaching them that they're not superior may actually be kind, both for their personal development and for a society where they will one day be voters, workers, and parents. By the time they grow up to inhabit those roles, it may already be too late.

See Baby Discriminate [Newsweek]
Therapy In Preschools: Can It Have Lasting Benefits? [Wall Street Journal]