Do Mothers Pass On Racism More than Fathers?

Dubner has blogged before about the difficulty of gathering accurate data from adults on subjects like racism. The problem, he noted, lies in people’s tendencies to give answers that are socially appropriate but don’t necessarily reflect their actual views.

Children, however, are not often so guarded (or disingenuous, depending on how you look at it). As such, they can provide a better means of studying whether and how deeply racism is passed down through generations. Psychologists Luigi Castelli, Luciana Carraro, Silvia Tomelleri, and Antonella Amari employed this strategy in their new study, titled, “White children’s alignment to the perceived racial attitudes of the parents: Closer to the mother than father,” published in the September British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Rather than poll parents about their racial views and then compare the results to the views of their children, the researchers instead assessed the children’s perceptions of their parents’ views on race. The authors thereby lessened the chances of political correctness skewing their results. Their findings are summarized as follows:

Overall, the children showed a strong in-group preference in their choice of playmates and in the attribution of positive and negative traits to White and Black peers. In addition, children reported the belief that parents would be happier if they played with a White rather than a Black child. Finally, children anticipated that parents would also display racial biases. Most importantly, we found that children’s attitudes were strongly correlated with the perceived expectations and attitudes of the mothers but not the fathers.

The finding that children have a powerful ability to pick up on their parents’ racism is unsurprising, given that children learn the majority of their lessons on social interaction from watching their parents. But the conclusion that white mothers have more influence on their children’s decisions to choose only white friends seems more a result of circumstances than any special link between matriarchal racism and childhood psychology. The comparative influences of mothers versus fathers have been studied in the past, on topics like whether fathers play a larger role in shaping language development, and whether mothers have a greater influence on their kids’ career choices. In this case, playmate choices could be affected more by mothers simply because of the dogged fact that mothers still perform the bulk of childcare duties, and are thus the predominant supervisors during playtime and other social situations. If Dad isn’t around at playdates and birthday parties, chances are he’ll have less to say about the friends his kid ultimately chooses.

(Hat tip: British Psychological Society Blog)


A year ago the NYT had a article about how children learn language better from their fathers instead of their mothers. Now some other researchers are saying that children learn racism better from their mother. Something has got to give. Both research can't be right about who children learn better from.

My guess is children learn racism from the person that is more vocal about their opinion. Women sometimes can't shut up about what they think. It would make sense that children will be bombarded daily with their mothers witching about racist views more than they would hear their fathers.


"Women sometimes can't shut up about what they think. "

And yet, ironically, coolrepublica is probably not a woman.


SF Lady: you may not have discouraged the friendship out of racism, and I believe you, but your story illustrates the institutional rather than legal basis for segregation today--something that we must consciously apply so much more effort to overcome.

This is bunk. I am Catholic, and there are studies that show that whether or not adult children wind up practicing Catholicism as adults is dependent upon the father, not the mother -- the exact opposite of these findings. They cannot both be correct.


If you're going to say "This can't be true because so-and-so said that kids learn some other thing from their fathers." Don't waste our time with that fallacy.

This study didn't say that kids only get racism from their mothers. Just that the mother's views on a kid's friends-- racist or not-- have more effect than the father's.

I'd like to know how much more, though: I'm not a racist, but my wife is to some extent. I was hoping I would be able to keep our future kids from being racist, so this research is discouraging!


When are these Freakonomists going to come out of the closet as sociologists? Clearly this is an issue that has little relevance with economics - it doesn't even involve quantitative variables! There is enough regression for everybody, but something needs to be said to give this social science justice. It's sociology, not economics. And albeit the line between quantitative sociology and qualitative economics is thin, you're going to need to at least attempt to dress it up in "elegant" mathematics to get published in the economic journals!


It is true that at best, the study can only speak for what children believe their parents think and that is far from saying that they can accurately discern the degree of parental prejudice. Interestingly though, I see comments that make the leap that the study claims that children learn everything better from one parent than the other. I see no such claim.


there's also a new study out which shows that children who watch Family Guy grow up to be racist


I think in todays society the majority of children are raised (or spend the most time) with their mothers which would make them the primary influence. Either way, its a sad situation....

Ashlie @


These comments are kinda discouraging, the things being said are just mind-boggling.

Opus - I think the point of the blog is just for them to post about things that interest them, a lot of the things they post about aren't necessarily economics related. - They most certainly could both be correct, as was pointed out mothers are a lot more involved in the friends a kid chooses, but a father could be a lot more involved with church attendance/religious involvement. Also, where is the study you're citing?


This comment in a response to Jay's above...

The reader seems to have lost the author's point that on a touchy subject like racism, parents are more likely to respond in a politically correct fashion that can often disguise their true intent or feelings. Certainly children may not be able to reflect 100% the depth of an adult's Reason, but they can reflect 100% the practical result of these actions.

Perhaps a more complete follow-up to the study would be to use a measure that parses out political correctness and real thoughts/feelings towards racism.


The point of the study is to discover how kids are learning racism. Even though the researchers are not asking the adults what their opinions are, they are asking the kids what they perceive their parents view to be. THAT is the only important part of discovering where the kids learn the racism.


In regard to #1, I wonder which parent teaches sexism.

You know, which race a child chooses to play with can depend on much more than the color of their skin. I like the idea of trying this approach to get unbiased (heh) responses, but using children as test subjects introduces other problems.


In response to Bob's comment about teenage rebellion:

Even among people who rebel strongly against their parents, I'm sure we all know former rebels that end up just like mom or dad. I think for most people, no matter how much they may want to believe that they are totally unlike their parents, rebellion is just a phase that is eventually overridden by more permanent learned traits (e.g., a tendency to base value judgments on race).


Is this an Italian study?

4 Italian authors, published in a British journal...

I noted that the female participation rate in the labour force for Italy = 50.12%, the US = 70.07% and the UK = 69.34%.

Could it be that because fewer Italian women work, they spend more time with children than in other countries? Are the results of their study less likely to be replicated in countries we are familiar with?

Perhaps Italians know something we don't...

Nathan M.


Women express their opinions too much? Pathetic. Check your bigotry next time, especially when commenting against racism.


There is evidence that women do prefer their own race when dating, as quoted in a freakonomics link:


I would take this study with a gigantic grain of salt. As a mother of two young children, I have been stunned to hear them tell me things that their teachers could not possibly have said (Canada being a U.S. state, for example), and wildly misinterpret the things I have told them. My youngest, for example, went through a phase of asking permission to use the bathroom all the time, every time, even at home, because I told him he was not allowed to use a public restroom by himself.

The number of factors that go into "child logic", such as selective listening, failure to grasp context, and adults being too harried to explain or go into detail, make me reluctant to accept a child's interpretation of an adult's viewpoint as accurate.


Learning racism and learning words are certainly two separate parts of the brain and would require two methods to learn. It is very possible both cases could hold true.

SF lady

I found this article interesting, but I have to wonder if the researchers have children. I live in San Francisco, where as a white woman I AM in the minority. ( I believe SF is currently 18% white) When my son was young he had a black friend (they met in an after-school program)who lived in the projects. I certainly wasn't going to allow my son to play at an apartment in the projects without spending many hours to assess if the home was safe, a luxury of time that I didn't have. Added to the local the boy's mother worked and had several other small children. I would have to pick up and drop off the friend each time. I began discouraging the friendship not out of racism, but out of inconvenience.

If my son was asked, would he have said I didn't want him to have black friends?