Hosting a playdate for two 4-year-olds on a hot afternoon, Betsy Braverman of Rye, NY, decided to take the kids to the local pool. She cleared the idea with the other mom, then asked her daughter, Juliet, to find a bathing suit for her friend to borrow. "But I don't want her brown body in my bathing suit," Juliet said.
Luckily, the other little girl, a preschool friend of Indonesian descent, didn't hear Juliet's comment. But Betsy was appalled: "I couldn't believe the words coming out of my daughter." She told Juliet that the color of her friend's skin didn't matter and that people are all the same inside. "She got what I was saying," Betsy says, "and I think the lesson stuck with her. But the contrast between that innocent face and the words that were coming out of it still bothers me."
Though it sounded horrible to her mother, Juliet's insensitivity is not at all atypical of kids her age, according to experts. "It's natural for young children to notice and be curious about characteristics common to another group of people," says John Jost, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at New York University in New York City. Sometimes children find such differences a little scary and react with teasing or hostility.
Kids are trying to figure out where they fit in the world. And as children notice differences, they form mental categories, says Sarah Bullard, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center's tolerance education project in Montgomery, AL. "Kids put people into groups and will rank one as better than the other," she says. "This type of thinking can be seen in kids as young as 3."
Even 6-month-olds notice differences in race and gender, according to a six-year longitudinal study led by Phyllis Katz, Ph.D., founding director of the Boulder, CO-based Institute for Research on Social Problems. When the kids in her study turned 3, Dr. Katz began testing to see if they had formed opinions about what they saw. She showed them photos of other kids, some white, some black, and asked questions like "Which child spilled the paint? Which child won the award for being the smartest?"