Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010, pp. 192--214
Exploring the Impact of Educational Television and
Parent–Child Discussions on Children’s Racial
Texas Woman’s University
George W. Holden
Southern Methodist University
The purpose of this study was to test the potential of educational television and
parent–child discussions about race to change White children’s attitudes toward
Blacks. Ninety-three White children ages 5–7 and their parents participated. Fam-
ilies were randomly assigned into three experimental groups and one control
group. Those in the experimental groups were asked either to show their children
five educational videos, with or without additional discussions, or to have race-
related discussions with their children without the videos. Improvements were seen
in children’s out-group attitudes in both the video and discussion groups, whereas
in-group attitudes decreased for those who watched videos and had discussions
with their parents. Results revealed lack of parental compliance. Even when in-
structed to do so, only 10% of parents reported having in-depth race-related
discussions with their children. Children’s racial attitudes were not significantly
correlated with those of their parents, but children’s perceptions of their par-
ents’ attitudes were positively correlated with their own. Reasons for parents’
reticence about race discussions, their outcome implications, and directions for
future research and intervention are discussed.
By the time they are 6 years old, many children are showing in-group
favoritism toward their own race, which some have interpreted as a developing
prejudice toward people of other racial and ethnic groups (Aboud, 2005; Aboud
& Doyle, 1996; Bigler, 1999; Castelli, De Amicis, & Sherman, 2007; Katz &
∗Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Brigitte Vittrup, Department
of Family Sciences, Texas Woman’s University, P.O. Box 425769, Denton, TX 76204 [e-mail:
DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2010.01223.x C
2010 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 193
Kofkin, 1997). Strong in-group favoritism, at the expense of out-group tolerance,
may lead to racial bias, and racially biased children are at risk for growing up to
be prejudiced adults and thus perpetuating existing problems in our society asso-
ciated with racial prejudice. Once attitudes have been held for many years, they
become a stable part of a person’s personality, and it follows that it will be more
difficult to change attitudes in adulthood than in childhood. Therefore, it is impor-
tant to investigate how children’s racial attitudes can be modified. Research has
shown that White children are likely to display more racial1bias than other groups
(Corenblum & Annis, 1993; Katz, 2003; Milner, 1975), and thus the focus of the
present study was on White families.
Many individuals and experiences influence children’s development of racial
attitudes, including parents, peers, amount of exposure to people of other races,
and the mass media (Katz, 2003). Indeed, it has been argued that children’s racial
attitudes reflect the attitudes of familiar individuals in their social environment
(Castelli, De Dea, & Nesdale, 2008), and for this study we focused on parents and
Parental Influences on Children’s Racial Attitudes
Parents are the major socializing agents in young children’s lives. They take
on the roles of teachers, models, and disciplinarians (Holden, 2010). In the child’s
early years, the power of socialization lies almost exclusively with the parents.
The child comes to depend on them, imitate them, and slowly begin to adopt their
mannerisms. In addition, young children do not have much access to alternative
answers or explanations, so the child’s contact with the world is essentially filtered
through the parents’ biases and perspectives (Milner, 1996). Essentially, parents
are the interpreters and instructors of the value systems that are in place in our
In terms of their children’s racial attitudes, parents can have both direct and
indirect influences. Direct influences would include teaching children explicitly
about race, instructing them how to interact with people of other racial groups, and
disciplining them based on their expressed attitudes and behaviors. Such direct
influences could be either positive or negative, depending on the parents’ own
racial attitudes and the importance they place on diversity and interracial contact.
Research into various types of racial and ethnic socialization practices indicate
that many parents, both White and non-White, believe that cultural socialization
and promotion of egalitarianism is important. However, the types of conversations
often vary based on the parents’ race or ethnic background (Hughes et al., 2006),
and White parents often refrain from specifically discussing race with their young
1For the sake of simplicity, the term “race” is used here to refer to both race and ethnicity.
194 Vittrup and Holden
children (Katz, 2003). While such silence has not typically been used as a measure
of racial socialization practices, it is important to recognize that failure to discuss
racial issues does in fact communicate race-related values and perspectives to
children (Hughes et al., 2006).
Marshall (1995) found large discrepancies between parents’ and children’s
reports of race discussions. Although the parents reported that they engaged in
racial socialization at home, their children often revealed that their parents taught
them little about race. It is possible that both parent and child informants were par-
tially correct: parental messages may not have been explicit enough and therefore
the verbal messages were not successfully transmitted.
Research comparing the similarities between parents’ and children’s explicit
racial attitudes has generally revealed weak to null correlations (Aboud & Doyle,
1996; Castelli, Zogmaister, & Tomelleri, 2009; Katz, 2003). In the absence of
explicit discussion, parents may assume that their children have racial attitudes
that are similar to their own, and they are surprised to find out otherwise. It has
been suggested that young children form rigid racial stereotypes that are resistant
to messages from adult authority figures (Bigler, 1999). However, it may also
be that without explicit parent–child conversations about race, children are more
likely to form attitudes based on information from other sources, such as peers and
the media. In families where parents do talk to their children about race, parents’,
and children’s attitudes are in fact more similar (Katz, 2003). Furthermore, Castelli
et al. (2009) found that mothers’ implicit racial attitudes were significant predictors
of children’s attitudes, indicating that parents may not accurately report their racial
attitudes to researchers due to social desirability and established social sanctions.
Castelli et al. (2008) further showed that children are able to pick up on subtle,
nonverbal cues from adults’ interracial interactions and that these cues influenced
their racial attitudes. In the absence of explicit messages, these cues may be even
Television Influences on Children’s Racial Attitudes
During the past two decades, the influence of television on children’s devel-
opment has received increased attention due to the large amount of time children
spend watching television and to the view that television has taken on the extra
role of a socializing agent. On average, children watch 3–5 hours of television per
day (Roberts & Foehr, 2004). Therefore, television has often been referred to as
a “window on the world” (Barcus, 1983; Graves, 1999). It is a medium through
which children experience and learn about the things they would not otherwise
personally experience. Through television they learn about societal customs, val-
ues, morals, and expectations. Television also provides children with information
about people of other racial and ethnic groups. While older children and adults are
more skeptical about the media content, young children are likely to view media
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 195
content as a glimpse of reality, and thus they are more likely to be influenced by
it (Chandler, 1997; McKenna & Ossoff, 1998).
Previous research supports the connection between television exposure and
racial attitudes. For example, frequent exposure to stereotypical portrayals of
Blacks can lead to a greater endorsement of such stereotypes and more negative
attitudes toward Blacks in general (Dixon, 2008; Graves, 1999; Lee, Bichard,
Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009; Ramasubramanian, 2010). According to Children
Now’s Fall Colors: Prime Time Diversity Report, prime time television remains
overwhelmingly White (Children Now, 2004). Whites account for 73% of prime
time television portrayals, Blacks comprise 16%, and Latinos represent only
6.5%. Furthermore, when excluding all-Spanish channels (such as Univision and
Telemundo), the television representation of Latinos accounts for only about 1%.
In addition to being underrepresented on television, minority actors who do ap-
pear on television are often in minor roles, and compared to Whites, minorities
on television are more likely to hold low-status jobs, be aggressive, or engage in
criminal activity (Baynes, 2007; Brown-Givens & Monahan, 2005; Children Now,
2004; Graves, 1999).
According to cultivation theory, television “cultivates” beliefs about the world
(i.e., norms, structure, and social behavior) through the way the world is depicted
(Comstock, 1993; Graves, 1999). Thus, the world portrayed on television becomes
the social reality of the viewer. For those with limited contact with people of other
racial and ethnic groups, television becomes a critical source of knowledge and
opinion formation (Fuijoka, 1999; Tan, Fuijoka, & Lucht, 1997). Consequently, the
limited presence of ethnic minorities on television can lead viewers to believe that
these groups are not important. Furthermore, the types of roles minorities play most
commonly (e.g., those in low-status occupations or involving criminal activity)
promote the view that they lack power and status. Children do in fact pick up on
status cues and such cues can influence their intergroup attitudes (Bigler, Averhart,
& Liben, 2003; Bigler, Brown, & Markell, 2001). Recent research also suggests
that race biases displayed through nonverbal behavior in television programs can
influence young people’s racial attitudes (Weisbuch, Pauker, & Ambady, 2009).
In addition, the segregation of races in different television shows sends the
message that racial groups are meant to be segregated and that interracial inter-
action is not important (see e.g., Bigler & Brown, 2002). Children with limited
exposure to members of other racial or ethnic groups will then be lacking appro-
priate role models for interracial interactions.
On the other hand, television can serve positive functions. Frequent positive
portrayals of minority group members interacting with majority group members
in a friendly and cooperative manner can send the message that minority group
members are just as important and should be regarded as equals. Children may
imitate these prosocial interactions modeled on television, thus making television
a constructive influence for the development of positive attitudes toward others.
196 Vittrup and Holden
Indeed, social learning theorists consider television to be an important influence
on behavior simply because it provides examples of categories of individuals
(e.g., Bandura, 1986). When these examples are portrayed as normative, they will
be especially influential (Comstock, 1993). Similarly, relevant adults portraying
positive nonverbal behaviors during interracial interactions can influence children
to hold less-biased racial attitudes (Castelli et al., 2008).
Positive Influences of Racially Diverse Television
Ethnically diverse educational programing may aid in the improvement of
children’s attitudes toward other racial groups. Considering how influential tele-
vision is in children’s lives, educational programing can be an important tool for
teaching children positive messages about other racial groups. In fact, several
studies have documented the positive effects of exposure to interethnic television
programs. Studies on both the U.S.-based Sesame Street, as well as a Canadian
version of the show, revealed that after watching episodes from Sesame Street’s
race curriculum, which promoted cross-racial friendships, minority children de-
veloped a more positive self-image, and White children reported more positive
attitudes toward Blacks and Latinos (Fisch, Truglio, & Cole, 1999; Lovelace &
Results from a study on the prejudice-reduction program Different and the
Same indicated that the televised curriculum was effective in changing children’s
knowledge about possible sources of prejudice and interpersonal conflict, as well
as teaching them strategies for resolving prejudice-based interpersonal conflict
(Graves, 1999). Furthermore, students who watched the educational videos focus-
ing on fairness, awareness, inclusion, and respect reported more positive attitudes
toward cross-race relationships, and were more likely to make cross-race friend-
ship selections compared to controls.
The Different and the Same curriculum, and a similar curriculum titled
Groark Learns About Prejudice, was specifically designed as a prejudice pre-
vention curriculum, but no similar programs have been identified as currently
being aired on television. Parents and educators can purchase the prejudice pre-
vention videos, but they are expensive2and most parents are not aware of them.
Although some television programs for children are advertised as promoting diver-
sity and reducing prejudice, a problem with many of them is that their messages
are too subtle. If the messages are not explicit enough, children may not get
the intended message. This is the likely explanation of failed attempts to show
significant results in several previous prevention efforts. For example, Persson and
2The Different and the Same videos (from Family Communications, Inc., www.fci.org) are sold
as a set of nine 15-minute videos for $292, and Groark Learns About Prejudice from the Getting Along
with Groark series (available through Live Wire Media, www.livewiremedia.com) is $70 for one tape.
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 197
Musher-Eizenman (2003) conducted two studies to investigate the impact of an
in-school prejudice prevention program on children’s ideas about race. The re-
searchers assessed children’s racial attitudes after watching a 10-minute segment
of one of three television programs (Study 1) or after four viewings of the same
20-minute prejudice prevention program over a period of 3 weeks (Study 2).
They found no change in children’s pro-White bias from pretest to posttest as-
sessments. The authors concluded that explicit discussion about the content was
Similarly, Lovelace and Scheiner (1994) found that although White chil-
dren who watched the Sesame Street race curriculum videos stated that they
would like to be friends with a Black child, they still thought that their mothers,
as well as the mothers in the videos, would be sad or angry about the friend-
ships. Thus, these children perceived the parents to be prejudiced, although the
episodes had portrayed hospitable, friendly, and inviting depictions of the par-
ents. Without explicit positive and supportive communication about the cross-race
friendships, the children did not perceive the parents as being supportive of such
Parents’ ability to influence children’s media habits is important in terms of
intervention efforts. Parents have the opportunity to curb their children’s expo-
sure to negative media portrayals and instead encourage the children’s exposure
to positive role models via educational programs featuring cast members from
different racial backgrounds displaying interracial friendships and cooperation.
Such portrayals of interracial friendships may count as the vicarious experiences
proposed by the “extended contact” hypothesis (Cameron, Rutland, Brown, &
Douch, 2006; Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997). Parent–child
discussions alone may not be enough to persuade children to modify their atti-
tudes. However, if the parents’ statements are backed up by televised portray-
als of interracial friendships, children may find their parents’ messages more
The Present Study
Based on findings from previous research, the present study combined the use
of parent–child discussions and educational television in an effort to improve White
children’s racial attitudes. Children aged 5–7 years old were targeted because
this age range is a time at which White children start to express particular in-
group favoritism and some out-group derogation (Aboud, 2005; Bigler, 1999;
Castelli et al., 2007; Katz & Kofkin, 1997). The two main hypotheses for the
study presented here were: (1) White children who watched the racially diverse
programs provided and discussed the content with a parent were expected to report
more-positive attitudes toward Blacks; (2) White children who had race-related
discussions with their parents were expected to be better able to predict their
198 Vittrup and Holden
parents’ racial attitudes following the experimental manipulation, compared to
children who did not have such discussions.
A total of 99 White families with 5- to 7-year-old children were recruited.
The families were recruited from a database of birth records maintained at a
university research laboratory. Three families withdrew from the study after the
initial visit because they became “too busy” and were unable to complete the tasks
or to schedule the follow-up interview. Two families withdrew after they were
assigned to a group and given instructions about required race-related discussions,
because the parents did not want to have such conversations with their children.
Additionally, one family’s data were excluded from the analyses because their
child was not White.
Of the remaining 93 participants (50 boys, 43 girls), there were twenty-nine
5-year-olds, thirty-two 6-year-olds, and thirty-two 7-year-olds. Almost all (95%)
of the parents were married or living together with a partner. Eighty-one percent
of mothers and 87% of fathers had earned a 4-year college degree. Nearly three
fourths of the families (69%) had annual family incomes exceeding $75,000.
Background information and pretest racial attitudes were collected and as-
sessed through parent surveys and child interviews. The intervention was con-
ducted with videos and home diaries. Finally, the posttest racial attitudes were
assessed with child interviews. The materials used for each of these components
are described below.
Parent questionnaire about television and race. This questionnaire (developed
specifically for this study) consisted of 20 questions concerning parental involve-
ment in children’s television use, diversity of the children’s surroundings, and
parent–child discussions about race and television content. The full questionnaire
is available from the first author.
Pro-Black/Anti-Black Attitude Questionnaire (PAAQ). This was a modified
version of the questionnaire originally developed by Katz and Hass (1988) to
measure racial attitudes in adults. It consisted of 10 Likert scale items, half of
which were worded to be consistent with humanitarian–egalitarian values (e.g.,
This country would be better off if it were willing to assimilate the good things
in Black culture.), and the other half consistent with the belief that the problems
experienced by Black people are due to their own shortcomings (e.g., Blacks
don’t seem to use the opportunities that are given to them.). Responses to the
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 199
statements were scored on a scale of 1 (Strongly Disagree)to6(Strongly Agree).
The statements indicating positive and egalitarian racial values formed the pro-
Black subscale, and the statements indicating some bias or prejudice formed the
anti-Black subscale, both subscales have a possible range of 5–30. Cronbach’s
alpha coefficients, in this sample for the pro-Black subscales, were .56 for the
mothers and .58 for the fathers. Alpha coefficients for the anti-Black subscales
were .75 and .71, respectively. For the purpose of analysis, aggregate attitude scores
were combined for mothers and fathers by subtracting the negative subscale from
the positive subscale.
Black/White Evaluative Trait Scale (BETS). For the child interviews, the
BETS (Hughes & Bigler, 2007), was used. The BETS measures children’s positive
and negative attitudes toward Black and White people. The scale consists of 12
items, including positive (e.g., nice, honest), negative (e.g., unkind, dishonest),
and neutral (curious, trusting) traits about each racial group. Children were asked
how many people within each racial group possessed these traits. Examples of
questions include, “How many Black people are nice?” and “How many Black
people are dishonest?” Response options were on a 5-point Likert-type scale,
and children’s responses were scored on a scale of 0 (Hardly Any)to4(Almost
All). Four subscales were derived from this measure, calculated as follows: the
positive items (nice, pretty, honest, generous, happy) for Blacks were added to
form the Positive Black subscale, the negative items (selfish, cruel, unkind, awful,
dishonest) were added to form the Negative Black subscale, and the neutral items
(curious, trusting) were disregarded. The same was done to obtain the positive and
negative subscales for Whites.
The BETS is likely to produce a more valid measure of children’s racial
biases compared to previous measures, such as the Preschool Racial Attitude
Measure (PRAM/PRAM II; Williams, Best, Boswell, Mattson, & Graves, 1975)
or the Multiresponse Racial Attitude measure (MRA; Doyle & Aboud, 1995),
because it measures separate positive and negative evaluations of both the in-
group and the out-group, thus not confounding in-group positivity with out-
group derogation (Cameron, Alvarez, Ruble, and Fuligni, 2001), and it includes
the option for children to choose multiple targets or no targets for each of the
For this sample of children, Cronbach’s alpha coefficients for the positive
attitude subscales were .53 and .59 (for evaluations of Blacks and Whites, re-
spectively), and for the negative attitude subscales were .75 and .71, respectively.
Composite in-group and out-group attitude scores were also computed based on
the BETS subscales. In-group attitude scores were calculated by subtracting Neg-
ative White from Positive White, and out-group attitude scores were calculated by
subtracting Negative Black from Positive Black.
Prediction of Parental Attitudes (PPA). This 14-item questionnaire, devel-
oped for this study, asked children to predict their parents’ attitudes toward Blacks
200 Vittrup and Holden
and Whites, as well as to state whether they or their parents have friends of
other races. The adjectives used on this questionnaire were a subset of the items
from the BETS and answer choices were “Yes,” “No,” or “I don’t know” (e.g.,
Does your Mom/Dad like Black people?, Does your Mom/Dad think Black peo-
ple are dishonest? etc.). The questionnaire items were read to the children by
an interviewer and their answers were circled on the questionnaire. The answers
were scored as follows: “Yes” on positive statements and “No” on negative state-
ments were given a score of +1, “No” on positive statements and “Yes” on
negative statements were given a −1, and “Don’t know” was given a 0. The
responses were then combined to form the PPA variables for responses about
parental attitudes toward Black people (PPA-Black) and toward White people
Videos. Five different video segments were chosen for this study, each lasting
10–15 minutes in length. Previous studies have included fewer videos or shorter
segments (e.g., Lovelace & Scheiner, 1994; Persson & Musher-Eizenman, 2003).
However, by watching five programs—one per day—children would be exposed
to racially diverse programing for almost a week, and they would be exposed to
different formats and different characters, which should result in greater gener-
alizability. The segments were episodes of The Puzzle Place, Sesame Street (two
episodes), Little Bill, and Zoom.3These videos were carefully chosen based on a
racially diverse cast, the portrayal of interracial friendships, and a focus on positive
relationships. Several of the videos have been used in previous research studies on
racial attitudes (see e.g., Fisch et al., 1999; Lovelace & Scheiner, 1994; Persson
& Musher-Eizenman, 2003).
Instructions and home diaries. Parents in all three experimental groups were
given a set of instructions for the screening of the videos and for having the
conversations with their children along with a home diary. Parents in the video-
only group were instructed to let the children watch the videos by themselves
and not talk to their children about the videos unless the children specifically
asked them questions about the content. Parents were instructed to record in the
diaries the essence of conversations they had with their children during or after
the screenings or discussions. Parents in the video-and-discussion and discussion-
only groups were given an additional handout containing instructions on what
topics to discuss with their children each night, such as pointing out how chil-
dren of different racial groups can be great friends and have a lot in common,
teaching them the importance of showing respect for people regardless of race
or skin color, asking children about cross-racial friendships (real or hypotheti-
cal) in the neighborhood or at school, and pointing out that children of each race,
3The Sesame Street videos were obtained directly from the Sesame Workshop. Little Bill and
Puzzle Place were purchased online, and Zoom was a recent television recording.
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 201
ethnicity, and skin color are all special. All parents were asked to note in their diary
specifically what they talked about (if applicable), what questions their children
asked, and their perceived depth of the conversation. Diary information was coded
by two independent coders. Coders agreed 95% of the time, and in the few in-
stances where they did not, codes were assigned based on the agreement of a third
At their initial visit to the research lab (Time 1), parents were asked to fill
out a consent form, and the 7-year-old children were asked to sign an assent form
after the study was explained to them by a researcher or parent. Parents then filled
out the questionnaires. While parents were filling out questionnaires and receiving
instructions, their children were interviewed in a nearby room with the BETS and
Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups. There were three
experimental groups: video-only (n=26), video-and-discussion (n=26), and
discussion-only (n=24). The final group was a control group which only com-
pleted the pretest and posttest questionnaires and interviews, and did not take part
in the intervention (n=17).
At the end of the Time 1 session, parents in the two video groups were given a
videotape with the five episodes and instructions on screening the episodes; parents
in the discussion groups were given a handout with race-related topics to discuss
with their children. Parents in all three experimental groups were also given the
instructions and home diaries for their assigned group and verbal instructions on
how to fill out the diaries. In addition, parents who were married or living with a
partner were asked to take home a packet of questionnaires for their partner to fill
Parents in the two video groups were asked to show one program (out of the
five on the video) on each of five different nights during the course of 1 week.
Parents in the discussion-only group were asked to discuss the assigned topics
once a day for 5 days during the course of 1 week. Finally, all parents were asked
to schedule a second appointment (Time 2) after the tasks had been completed,
approximately 1 week after the initial lab visit.
At Time 2, parents returned the videos, home diaries, and their partner’s
questionnaire. The children were interviewed again, using the same instruments
as in Time 1. Most (91%) parents and children showed up for the second interview
6–8 days after their first appointment. The remainder waited 9–12 days. At the
end of the second session, the parents and children were thanked and the children
were given a $10 gift card and a toy.
202 Vittrup and Holden
Tab l e 1. Reported Parent–Child Conversation Topics Related to Race
Everybody is equal/God loves everyone 32
Don’t discriminate/skin color doesn’t matter 21
Everyone is different/what matters is what’s on the inside 16
Languages/traditions of other countries 16
Historical issues (slavery, segregation) 8
Other/no answer 7
Parents’ and Children’s Racial Attitudes
Mothers’ and fathers’ racial attitude scores were significantly correlated on
both the pro-Black and anti-Black subscales, rs=.33–.45, ps<.05. Mothers’
and fathers’ composite out-group scores were also positively correlated, r(52) =
Children reported significantly more positive attitudes about Whites than
about Blacks, t(93) =−5.91, p<.05 (Ms=15.77 and 14.01, respectively).
Their negative attitudes of Black people were not significantly different from
their negative attitudes of White people, t(93) =.68, p>.05 (Ms=6.20 and
6.00, respectively). Children’s positive and negative subscales were uncorrelated,
rs=−.09 to −.15, ps>.05). On the composite scores, the difference in in-
group and out-group attitude scores was significant, t(89) =3.80, p<.05 (Ms=
9.85 and 7.87, respectively). Children’s in-group and out-group attitudes were
not significantly correlated with their parents’ attitudes, rs=.04–.20, ps>.05.
Correlations and descriptive statistics for the subscales and composite measures
are available from the first author.
Sixty percent of parents reported that their children had at least one Black
friend. Sixty-three percent of the children also reported having a Black friend.
Most (87%) of the children who said they had a Black friend indicated the friend
was a classmate. Only 4% of the children revealed that they had gone to one of
their Black friends’ home or had the friend over to their home. Children who
reported having Black friends showed slightly more positive out-group attitudes
(M=8.09) compared to the children without Black friends (M=7.40); however,
the difference was not significant, F(1, 85) =0.31, p>.05.
A majority of parents (69% of mothers and 78% of fathers) reported having
Black friends. However, only 53% of the children reported they were aware of
these friendships. Children who were aware that their parents had Black friends
evaluated Blacks more positively (M=9.29) than children who reported that their
parents did not have Black friends (M=5.83) or that they were unaware (M=
7.50), F(2, 85) =3.88, p<.05.
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 203
Sixty-five percent of mothers and 42% of fathers reported discussing race-
related issues with their children. However, only 33% of mothers and 20% of
fathers had explicit discussions that included racial labels, skin color, stereotypes,
and discrimination. For a list of discussion topics and frequencies, see Table 1.
Children whose mothers and fathers reported discussing race had more positive
out-group attitude scores (Ms=8.22 and 7.90) compared to those whose mothers
and fathers did not discuss race (Ms=4.91 and 3.71), Fs=3.43–3.49, ps=.06.
These discussions did not significantly impact their children’s in-group attitudes.
Parental Compliance with Intervention Instructions
Home diaries were inspected to assess whether parents had complied with
instructions given to them regarding the videos and instructions. All parents in
the video-only and video-and-discussion groups indicated that they had shown all
five video segments to their children. However, the home diaries revealed a lack
of compliance with the instructions when it came to the discussions. All parents
were asked to rate their level of discussion each day, indicating whether they “just
mentioned” the topics provided to them, had “some” discussion with the child, or
had an “in-depth” discussion with the child.
In the groups assigned to discussion with their children, 50% (n=25) admitted
that they only briefly mentioned the comments and did not have any further
discussion with their child. In addition, two families acknowledged that despite
the instructions, they had no discussion with their children. Thirty-eight percent
(n=19) indicated that they added a couple of comments or questions, but only
10% (n=5) engaged their children in in-depth conversation about the provided
topics. For the purpose of further analysis, parents were divided into “Discussion”
(those who had “some” or “in-depth” discussions) and “No Discussion” (those
who had no discussion or only brief mentions) groups.
Effects of Videos and Discussions on Children’s Posttest Attitudes
In order to assess the effects of educational videos and parent–child discus-
sions on children’s posttest racial attitudes, a 2 (Video: yes [n=49], no [n=38]) ×
2 (Discussion: yes [n=24], no [n=63]) ×3 (Age: 5, 6, 7) analysis of covariance
(ANCOVA) was conducted with pretest out-group attitude scores (based on the
Positive Black and Negative Black subscales on the BETS)) as the covariate, and
posttest out-group attitude scores as the dependent variable. A significant video ×
discussion interaction effect was found, F(1, 74) =5.71, p>.05. Children who
watched the videos without discussions showed more positive out-group attitudes
(M=10.67, SD =5.38) than children in the control group who did not watch
videos and did not have discussions with their parents (M=7.85, SD =5.11),
and similarly, children who did not watch videos but whose parents discussed the
204 Vittrup and Holden
Positive (Black) Negative (Black) Positive (White) Negative (White)
Children's Post-Intervention Evaluations
Fig. 1. Change scores in children’s affective evaluations of Blacks and Whites, based on discussion
level (video-and-discussion group).
topic of race showed more positive out-group attitudes (M=12.18, SD =4.87)
than the control group. For those who watched the videos, discussion level did not
significantly impact the posttest attitude scores (Ms =10.67 and 9.77).
A 2 (Video: yes, no) ×2 (Discussion: yes, no) ×3 (Age: 5, 6, 7) ANCOVA
was conducted with pretest in-group attitude scores (based on the Positive White
and Negative White subscales on the BETS) as the covariate, and posttest in-group
attitude scores as the dependent variable. Again, a significant video ×discussion
interaction effect was found, F(1, 75) =4.26, p>.05. Children who did not watch
videos showed improved in-group attitudes when parents discussed the topic of
race (M=10.55, SD =3.53) compared to the control group that had no discussion
(M=8.96, SD =4.86). But interestingly, children who watched the videos and
had race-related discussions showed less positive in-group attitudes (M=10.14,
SD =5.00) than those who watched videos and did not have discussions (M=
12.36, SD =4.38). A depiction of change scores based on discussion level can be
seen in Figures 1 and 2.
Children’s Ability to Predict Parents’ Attitudes
Children’s posttest scores on the PPA-Black variable were significantly dif-
ferent from their pre-test scores, t(89) =5.34, p<.05, indicating that children
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 205
Positive (Black) Negative (Black) Positive (White) Negative (White)
Children's Post-Intervention Evaluations
Fig. 2. Change scores in children’s affective evaluations of Blacks and Whites, based on discussion
level (discussion-only group).
perceived their parents’ attitudes toward Blacks as more positive at posttest.
Pretest and posttest scores on the PPA-White variable did not differ significantly,
t(84) =0.70, p>.05.
PPA-Black scores were positively correlated with children’s out-group atti-
tudes, both at pretest and at posttest, rs=0.28–0.32, ps<.01. Children’s pretest
PPA-Black scores were not correlated with their mothers’ and fathers’ composite
racial attitude scores, but at posttest they were, rs=0.28–0.30, ps<.05.
Following the intervention, children in the discussion groups were less likely
to answer that they were unsure of whether their parents liked Black people (19%
vs. 40% pretest). Similarly, those in the video groups were also less likely to answer
at posttest that they were unsure (19% vs. 44% pretest). A multinomial logistic
regression analysis with video group (yes/no) and discussion group (yes/no) as
the independent variables, pretest answer (yes/no/don’t know) as the covariate,
and posttest answer as the dependent variable revealed that the difference was
significant, X2(6, n=94) =21.78, p<.05.
Similarly, children who watched videos or had discussions were less likely
to indicate that they did not know if their parents would approve of them having
a Black friend (video: 10% vs. 22% pretest; discussion: 3% vs. 24% pretest), or
that their parents would disapprove of them having a Black friend (video: 9% vs.
14% pretest; discussion: 3% vs. 8% pretest). The multinomial logistic regression
206 Vittrup and Holden
Yes No Don't Know
Child Response to "Do your parents like Black people?"
Fig. 3. Discussion group children’s reports of whether their parents like Black people, before (pretest)
and after (posttest) the intervention.
model was significant for these results as well, X2(6, n=94) =20.65, p<.05.
For an overview of children’s pretest and posttest responses, see Figures 3 and
4. Comparatively, 94% of children said their parents liked White people, and 6%
Multiple agents of socialization influence children’s development of racial
attitudes. This study was designed to investigate the specific impact of educational
television and parent–child discussions about race-related topics. Television is
often referred to as a “window on the world” (Barcus, 1983; Graves, 1999), and
Wynter (2002) claimed that young people today are “the first generation that can
truly be defined by the television they watch” (p. 182). Therefore, it is important
to look at how children may learn about society through the television lens. In
addition, it is necessary to look at the role parents play in terms of interpreting the
messages children may be exposed to through television.
An important source from which children gain knowledge about other racial
groups is the family. Looking at the associations between family members’ racial
attitudes, this study found that mothers’ and fathers’ self-reported racial attitudes
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 207
Yes No Don't Know
Child Response to "Do your parents like Black people?"
Fig. 4. Video group children’s reports of whether their parents like Black people, before (pretest) and
after (posttest) the intervention.
were found to be positively correlated. However, as found in previous research,
parents’ explicit racial attitudes were uncorrelated with those of their children.
Thus, despite parental claims of egalitarian viewpoints, their children seemingly
did not automatically adopt these same attitudes. Without having measures of the
parents’ implicit attitudes, we were unable to determine if those may have been
associated with the children’s attitudes.
Results of this study also confirmed prior research on in-group bias (e.g.,
Bigler & Brown, 2002; Sigelman, Miller, & Whitworth, 1986; Yee & Brown,
1992). The White children in this study rated White people more positively than
they rated Black people.
Although approximately three fourths of the parents reported having Black
friends, only about half of the children were aware of such friendships. Children
who were cognizant of their parents’ interracial friendships showed more positive
and less negative evaluations of Blacks. This finding may reflect the role of
observational learning in children’s development of racial attitudes. If children
observe positive encounters between their parents and people of other races,
they may be positively influenced (Castelli et al., 2008). However, this would
predicate children being able to make such observations. If the friendly interracial
interactions occur outside of the children’s home (such as at the work place),
208 Vittrup and Holden
children are not privy to these relationships. This may be the reason fewer children
reported awareness of their parents having Black friends.
Children who reported having Black friends showed slightly more positive
attitudes toward Blacks, although the difference was not statistically significant,
possibly due to the confounding of classmates and friends. Future research can
benefit from asking the children more details about these reported friendships
to determine whether the closeness of the friendship (e.g., a playmate from the
neighborhood versus a classmate in school), as well as the number of Black friends,
influences children’s attitudes.
Only a few parents indicated that they had explicit discussions with their
children about race. Children of parents who did showed more positive out-
group attitudes at a level that approached significance. A larger sample size with
more parents reporting substantive discussions may yield stronger results. Fu-
ture research also needs to look at the effects of specific types of race-related
Effectiveness of Intervention
It was hypothesized that the intervention would be successful in influencing
children’s racial attitudes, such that children who were exposed to racially di-
verse television programs and discussions about race would show more positive
attitudes toward Blacks. Both videos and discussions influenced children’s out-
group attitudes. Compared to children in the control group, children who watched
videos and/or had discussions with their parents showed more positive out-group
attitudes. Generally, the influence of videos was more significant when parents did
not have discussions, and the influence of discussions was more significant when
children did not watch videos, thus indicating that both contributed to a change
in children’s attitudes. However, the two methods combined did not prove to be
superior to either method alone. This could indicate a possible ceiling effect for
change, or it could be related to the apparent lack of compliance on the part of the
parents (see below).
Children’s in-group attitudes also improved when parents discussed the topic
of race, but only for those who did not watch videos. In the video groups, children
whose parents had race-related discussions with them showed less-positive in-
group attitudes. This could indicate that children were perceiving inequality based
on the discussions, although the diaries the parents turned in did not reveal a
specific pattern in that direction.
After inspecting parents’ reports of the level of depth of their discussions
with their children, it appeared that many parents did not engage in the discussion
part of the procedure. Almost half of the parents who were assigned to discuss
admitted that they only briefly mentioned some of the topics. Only 10% of the
parents reported that they engaged their children in substantive discussions, thus
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 209
indicating reluctance to discuss the topic of race. Similarly, two families chose
to withdraw from the study after being instructed to have such conversations.
Such reluctance may be due to discomfort with the topic and not knowing how to
approach it, and further research should explore parental thoughts about this issue.
It is also possible that parents are not motivated to have race-related discussions
with their children, because they believe that their children are not biased and
therefore the discussions do not seem necessary to them. Further research needs
to be conducted on parents’ perceptions of their children’s racial attitudes. For
the purpose of intervention research, procedures may need to be included to
motivate parents to engage in the topic and realize the importance of it. Parents
may need a demonstration on how to conduct the discussions, and it may be
necessary to require them to commit, either verbally or in writing, to having
the discussions. Results from an intervention study with increased participant
compliance might produce stronger effects, as well as more valid and reliable
Prior to the intervention, many children were not aware of their parents’ racial
attitudes, which is likely an outcome of the parents’ reluctance to discuss the topic.
This is significant because children’s perceptions of their parents’ attitudes toward
certain groups of people likely influence their own attitudes toward such groups.
This assumption was supported by results of this study. Whereas children’s racial
attitudes were not shown to be significantly correlated with their parents’ reported
racial attitudes, children’s perceptions of their parents’ racial attitudes were sig-
nificantly associated with their own reported attitudes. Children who perceived
their parents to have more-positive attitudes toward Black people were more likely
to report more-positive out-group evaluations themselves. Many parents reported
that they would rather have their children learn through observation than through
direct discussion about race; however, our results indicate that many children ei-
ther have not had the opportunity to observe positive interracial interactions, or
they have somehow formed the idea that their parents may not be supportive of
It was expected that children who had race-related discussions with their
parents would be better able to predict their attitudes. After the intervention,
children in the discussion groups were more certain of their parents’ attitudes
compared to children who did not have race-related discussions with their parents.
This indicates the utility of explicit parent–child discussions about race. Parents
often assume that their children have racial attitudes that are similar to their own,
and they are surprised to find out that often their attitudes do not match (Katz,
2003). Without explicit parent–child conversations about race, children are more
likely to learn from other sources, such as peers or the media that, as mentioned,
can be highly biased. Allport (1954) commented that racism is more likely to
be “caught” rather than taught directly, and this study speaks to his observation.
Children indeed may pick up on implicit negative messages about other racial
210 Vittrup and Holden
groups because their parents are not willing to discuss this sensitive topic and do
not expose their children to positive adult interracial interactions.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
One limitation was the length of time for the intervention. Due to time limita-
tions, as well as to parents’ time constraints, the intervention was only conducted
for 1 week, and no follow-up data were collected on children’s racial attitudes.
Children may need more exposure to the vicarious interracial interactions and have
more discussions with their parents before significant long-term improvements can
Furthermore, this study may be limited in its generalization to other groups
of the population due to the fact that only White families participated and most of
them were middle-class families. Different results may be found with participants
from other racial and socioeconomic groups.
A great deal of research has been conducted on various prejudice preven-
tion programs implemented in schools (see e.g., Bigler, 1999). However, there
is a gap in research on interventions focusing on family involvement. Thus,
there is a need for more experimental research looking at how parents can in-
fluence improvements in children’s racial attitudes. Interventions in the schools
may be easier to implement due to greater compliance of teachers compared
to parents. However, a prejudice prevention program will likely be more effec-
tive if it includes discussions or activities in the child’s home environment as
Future research would benefit from attending to associations between par-
ents’ and children’s implicit racial attitudes, as well as nonverbal cues expressed
by parents, other adults, and television characters in children’s programing, in
order to investigate the more subtle influences on children’s attitudes. Most adults
prefer to view themselves as unprejudiced (Monteith, 1993), which can explain
the dissociation between explicit and implicit attitudes (Greenwald, McGhee,
& Schwartz, 1998). If they fear being viewed as prejudiced, they may become
focused on constructing, maintaining, and defending desired images of them-
selves as unprejudiced, and such “egosystem goals” may lead to impaired in-
tergroup interactions (Crocker & Garcia, 2009). This could lead to avoidance
of contact with out-group members, further creating a segregated environment
that does not allow children to view positive interracial interactions. However,
Crocker and Garcia suggest that when people have “ecosystem goals,” they are
more likely to focus on what they can learn, contribute, or do to support oth-
ers, and that can lead to increased understanding and improved intergroup in-
teractions. Creating interventions that promote ecosystem goals may make par-
ents more willing to cooperate and could in turn promote more long-lasting
Exploring Children’s Racial Attitudes 211
There is also a need for more research looking at the effects of multiple social-
izing agents on children’s development of racial attitudes. A child’s development
is impacted by a multitude of interdependent systems, including the child’s family,
peers, neighborhood, school, media, and societal values (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
Thus, when it comes to influencing a child’s racial-attitude development, it is
not enough to look at effects from only one of these systems. Change may need
to occur at several levels, and future research needs to investigate the types of
interventions that are most effective.
Prejudice continues to be a problem in our society, and in order to decrease
its occurrence, it is important to intervene with children when they are young. As
children get older, their racial attitudes and behaviors are likely to become more
negative and harder to change (Stephan & Vogt, 2004). Children who adopt more
egalitarian views will likely display less racial bias, and this in turn may lead to
less racial tension in our society. As this study has documented, many parents
choose not to discuss the topic of race with their children. For some parents,
television programs promoting positive interracial interactions may be useful as a
way to approach the subject, because they can use the television content to initiate
conversations with their children about race. Although it appears that a number of
parents are uncomfortable in discussing with their children the topic of race and
discrimination, this study sheds some light on the role parent–child conversations
may play in enlightening children about their parents’ racial attitudes. It is hoped
that this study can be a springboard to future investigations into the impact parents
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BRIGITTE VITTRUP is an assistant professor of early childhood development and
education at Texas Woman’s University. She received her Ph.D. in developmental
psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include
media influences on child development, childhood guidance and discipline, and
identity development in biracial and multiracial children.
GEORGE W. HOLDEN is a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist Uni-
versity. He received his Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the determinants and
significance of the parent-child relationship in development. Primary research in-
terests include parental social cognition, attitudes and use of physical punishment,
and the causes and effects of family violence.