Cultural Consciousness in Kids: Nurturing Self & Mutual Respect

May 20th, 2010

By Wendy Kovacs, LMFT
HCC Senior Clinician

Parents often ask me when I lead diversity workshops: “At what age do kids really begin to be racially and culturally aware?” The reality is that we have a window of opportunity during the child’s early years to help them develop a positive racial identity and cultural awareness. When children are young is the ideal time to challenge their distorted views or pre-prejudiced thinking. Children construct their identity and attitudes through experiences with their social environments, especially caregivers. In other words, your child’s cultural consciousness is learned first and foremost by observing and modeling YOU!

During infancy and toddlerhood, the foundation of self-awareness is laid. Toddlers are sensitive to the adults around them and begin to mimic adult behavior. They recognize and are more comfortable with people who look and sound similar to their caregivers. At the same time, they begin to identify similarities and differences between self and others. By the end of this stage, children are able to recognize and explore physical characteristics. They have learned the names of colors, which they start to apply to hair and skin.

During preschool years, children get better at noticing differences among people. They can sort by shape and size, but their thinking is not yet advanced enough to understand racial groups. They begin to ask how they got their physical characteristics, which they think are changeable. Preschoolers begin to express being unhappy about the physical characteristics that differ from those around them or that are picked on by others. They are developing a self-concept. By the age of 4, children believe stereotypes and have formed pre-prejudiced thinking.

By Kindergarten children begin to understand scientific explanations for their physical differences, and can understand differences between people of the same race. They develop social skills and begin to explore the culture of their classmates. By the end of Kindergarten, most children understand the concepts of fair and unfair. If children at this stage are allowed to form or keep stereotypes, treat others unfairly, or are not exposed to diverse environments, these illogical thoughts may become permanent.

Our task as parents, teachers, therapists, and loved ones, is to support children’s development of a positive self-concept to feel proud of who they are— neither inferior nor superior to any human — while nurturing within them a social consciousness and appreciation for diversity. The children of today will be the adults (and leaders!) of tomorrow, so we need to teach them to accept differences, identify unfair situations, and strive for the elimination of racism. And this process must start at the beginning of life in order to have the greatest impact.