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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)