From infancy, kids mimic behaviors they see all around them. But at what age can some of those mimicked behaviors turn into social biases?
Developmental psychologist Allison Skinner and her colleagues observed 283 kids ages three to five years old as they watched a video of two people interacting.
One person was giving off positive nonverbal cues to another person, such as smiling, leaning in, and using a warm tone of voice. And then that same person was giving off negative nonverbal cues to a different person, such as leaning away or using a cold tone of voice. The words were the same in both interactions.
Then the kids were asked who they liked best. The researchers found that kids acquired attitudes toward the people in videos based on those nonverbal cues, and the more the kids mimicked emotional expressions displayed toward the people in the video, the more likely their own attitudes matched those on the screen.
“They suggest that the nonverbal signals that kids are exposed to are really important and can have a pretty big impact on the attitudes that they acquire toward other people and other groups,” Skinner said.
Skinner says talking about the biases kids are exposed to can help children put nonverbal cues in perspective. Say things like “that wasn’t very nice,” “why might that happen?” or “how do you think that made her feel?” and help your kids empathize with different people.
Skinner says some parents tend to avoid talking about race because they are concerned that they are going to create a bias as opposed to reducing it. However, she says if parents don’t say anything when they see something biased, then their kids won’t have any reason to think that there is anything wrong with it.