Magazine Feature

Early Deliberations

A developmental psychologist investigates how children think about fairness and exclusion.

"Tom should decide who he wants to hang out with," a 7th grade boy tells the interviewer. "You pick your friends. No one else picks your friends."

The boy is responding to a question about another boy’s decision not to make friends with a girl. But when asked if it’s all right for Jerry, who is White, not to play with Damon, who is Black, the same 7th grader, himself Hispanic, reasons otherwise: "No, that’s not okay because that’s just racism. … He is the same as Jerry on the inside, but on the outside they are different."

As a developmental psychologist and faculty member in a college of education, I work with teachers who are eager to find out how children make decisions about social interactions like the ones mentioned above. They want to know how children develop social and moral concepts, when they apply these concepts to how they get along with others — especially those from a different gender or ethnic group — and what types of external influences matter to children.

Unfortunately, in everyday situations, educators and parents often find themselves addressing these issues in "crisis management" mode: A conflict has broken out between children from different backgrounds, and adults are there to mediate or to determine what course of action should occur.

In the heat of the moment, such communication often bypasses a crucial chance to listen to what children really think — a dimension of experience that actions sometimes belie.

My colleagues and I designed a series of studies to find out how children and adolescents evaluate acts of exclusion based on gender and race.

The results were hard to predict. Current literature shows that children form stereotypes early (gender stereotypes emerge in preschool years and race-based stereotypes during elementary school years).

Moreover, adolescents are wary of being labeled "politically correct" and view civil rights issues as something "of the past." Thus children could judge exclusion based on gender or race as legitimate because it confirms stereotypic norms, or they might view it with indifference.

Alternatively, extensive research shows that fairness judgments emerge during preschool years regarding play. As children get older, their sense of fairness extends to resource allocation and concern for others’ welfare.

Notably, few prior moral development researches have examined issues involving inter-group relationships. Our studies reflect a crucial shift in social development research over the last decade: Rather than talking with children about hypothetical scenarios involving children just like them, we are now interested in how children make decisions about fairness in situations involving both sexes and other races.


Research Design and Procedures

For the past five years, my colleagues and I have conducted in-depth, individually administered 30- to 40-minute interviews with more than 500 children and adolescents living in different communities around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region.

Our interviews involve short scenarios about hypothetical decisions among children and do not involve asking children about their personal experience. We tell them that we are interested in what they think about what other children do, that there are no right or wrong answers.

Using about 20 semi-structured questions, we draw out children’s underlying reasoning about exclusion. We ask them to elaborate: "Why is that? Tell me more. How come it’s that way?"

Our method is designed to move beyond children’s mimicked responses and to assess the ways in which their judgments are influenced by peer pressure, authority viewpoints and cultural expectations. We conduct one-to-one interviews in quiet rooms at school, to ensure confidentiality and anonymity.

We tape-record the interviews and transcribe them for analysis, using coding systems to quantify children’s responses and determine general patterns for different age groups, genders and ethnicities of the participants.


Exclusion in Three Contexts

In a recently completed project, we interviewed 282 fourth, seventh and tenth graders from four different ethnic backgrounds (European American, African American, Hispanic and Asian American) about exclusion in three contexts: friendship, peer group and school.

We asked children how they assessed a child’s decision not to be friends with someone (a new kid in the neighborhood) because of his or her race and gender. We also asked students how they judged exclusion from a peer group (music club), as well as how they evaluated a town’s decision to exclude children from school because of their gender or race.

We followed up our initial questions with probes about how students view the role of peer influence ("What if his friends tell him not to let her in the club?"), adult influence ("What if the parents say she should be friends with him?"), and cultural expectations ("What if there is another country that does not let girls go to school?").

We found that, in the school context, 97 percent of children said it would be wrong to exclude children from school because of their gender or race. A 4th grade European American boy commented about keeping girls away from school:

"It’s not all right because it’s not like girls have this certain disease. There is no difference between anybody, and everybody should be able to go to school."

A 10th grade African American girl spoke forthrightly about excluding Black children from school:

"It’s an educational matter, and you should have freedom of education no matter what color you turn out to be. You are still a person, same organs, maybe the skin stuff is a little different, but that shouldn’t have anything to do with it."

These two students gave priority to the right of everyone to go to school. At the same time, they rejected the notion of group membership as a reason for exclusion.

In scenarios involving friendship and peer group, however, stereotypes and cultural expectations began to intervene. Many students supported a group’s decision to exclude a girl from a music club and viewed friendship decisions as a matter of personal choice.

In contrast to their response to exclusion from school, which all the children deemed wrong, 30 percent said it was all right not to be friends with someone solely because of gender, and 25 percent thought it legitimate for boys to bar a girl from a music club.

In comparison, fewer students agreed with the decision to exclude someone because of race as a friend (15 percent) or from a music club (12 percent).

Sometimes a student who reports that exclusion is all right in one context judges that it would be wrong in another context (as in the opening example). This may be because children grasp the complex factors that lie behind decisions of inclusion and exclusion.

The variability could also signal real uncertainties about when to give priority to fairness and when to privilege group functioning or personal choice. Adults can take these opportunities to help children examine their reasoning and develop consistent principles of fair treatment.

We find that this indirect approach to "values education" is helpful because it focuses on peer interaction contexts (how peers treat one another). The teacher serves as a facilitator and guides classroom discussion around familiar but salient issues in children’s lives. They can raise questions about when fairness principles may be relevant to the discussion. We find that fairness, however, is one of the first issues raised by students themselves.


Embedded Gender Biases

Our results point to an embedded social asymmetry. When we interviewed children about gender and race, we found that they believe exclusion based on race is less acceptable than exclusion based on gender.

This may reflect the pattern that, in American society today, gender stereotypes are more widely expressed and condoned than are racial stereotypes. There are many contexts in our society in which the segregation of the sexes is viewed as legitimate (e.g., restrooms, sports teams and schools), whereas the segregation of individuals by race is almost uniformly condemned (excepting many Greek societies that practice de facto racial segregation).

This asymmetry of societal expectations about exclusion may make it more difficult for children (and adults) to tease out decisions about gender exclusion.

A 7th grade European American boy observed:

"I think that Mike and his friends should not let the girl in the club. Girls really don’t know much about music. … A club works better if everyone has the same ideas and the same interests."

If we wait until high school to discuss these topics, our task of facilitating a sense of justice and equality in our next generation is much more difficult.

On the other hand, a 7th grade European American girl vacillated between her sense of fairness and social expectations: "Trying to keep her out just because she’s a girl … that’s discrimination. But boys, they talk about stuff that girls just don’t like or don’t like doing. It’s probably okay to not let her in because she’d just be the only girl and all those boys would be talking about stuff that she wouldn’t know about. But really, they don’t have a good reason not to let her in, and I think that’s a form of discrimination."

By engaging students in exercises of analytical and ethical decision-making, adults can help youngsters discern when exclusion is legitimately a personal or group decision and when it violates principles of fairness. My colleagues and I have contributed to the design of social development curricula that include guided discussions about what it means to preserve group identity, how to evaluate cultural perceptions and when it is fair/unfair to exclude.


Parental and Peer Influences

Our findings confirmed common wisdom that authority influences decrease with age and peer influences increase with age, but there was one surprise. We found that these influences were effective in prompting children to reject exclusion — but not to condone exclusion.

The majority of children who initially thought exclusion was wrong did not change their judgment even when hearing that parents or peers said it was all right. We noted that peer influence was more effective in positively changing children’s judgments than was authority influence.

This shows that fairness principles do carry force. Further, it suggests that youth activism opportunities and programs that encourage young people to discuss equity and tolerance with their peers can be effective means of moral education.

Here are some examples from children who were conflicted but ultimately resisted the authority influence. A 4th grade Hispanic girl said:

"I don’t think it’s right to do something that your parents don’t want you to do, but still you should be friends with everyone. Maybe his parents had a good reason for telling him it was okay to not play with Damon [who is Black]. If it was up to me, I’d tell him to play with him because you want to be nice to everyone."

A European American 4th grader reasoned as follows:

"Different families do different things. … I guess they’re not used to, well, it’s actually their parents’ fault for not letting them hang out with different races. I’m not in charge of Jerry, but I don’t think it’s right ’cause a lot of Black people are very nice, and why would the parents say that? But it’s hard sometimes, because you want to obey your parents."

An Asian American 10th grade male, however, was more forceful in his answer:

"The parents are teaching him … racism, because encouraging him to be against him because of his skin color is very wrong. … Yes, I would call it racist."

From a young age, children confront a diversity of viewpoints from adults (such as parents, teachers, camp counselors, neighbors and coaches). Through reflective discussion, children can develop the ability to evaluate adult messages critically.

It is important for educators to encourage children to discern their own moral principles and to act on them, even when they hear discrepant messages from other adults, including their parents.

Our research shows that, with age, the majority of children develop sensitivity to the contexts of social decision-making. For example, they identify many reasons that are used to justify exclusion, such as group functioning and autonomy. Some of these concerns are legitimate, and adults should recognize them as such.

At times, however, these concerns may be a guise for implicit stereotypes. Educators and parents can use reflective dialogue to help young people probe their assumptions about group identity, individual prerogatives and fairness.


Following Steps

In our studies, girls appear to be more sensitive to exclusion than are boys. This was true for all ethnic groups we interviewed, and it is consistent with many other studies in this field. (While we find that the gender gap is smaller in minority than in majority cultures, it is still present.)

What accounts for this gender distinction? What types of feedback can we give to boys to facilitate their awareness of fairness and inclusion?

Although parents and educators now routinely encourage girls to challenge gender stereotypes and build confidence and self-esteem by participating in sports, our culture has been slower to provide opportunities for boys to overcome masculine stereotypes regarding communication and social intimacy.

We note one hopeful sign — among students we interviewed, there were few differences between the ethnic groups regarding the morality of exclusion. What stood out was that minority students were much more likely to step back and elaborate on the need for integration, the principles of justice, and the desire to make a better world.

This is partially attributable perhaps to the types of school environments these children are in, as well as students’ personal experience with exclusion. Our studies were conducted in middle- to working-class areas outside a metropolitan region, whose population was of mixed ethnicity.

In other related studies that we are now conducting, we find that students in more homogeneous school environments are less sensitive to these issues than are students in heterogeneous environments.



We were heartened by the strong and direct ways in which children and adolescents rejected exclusion — and their elaborate understanding of fairness and justice. Thinking about justice is natural for children.

What is often challenging is to determine when fairness should take priority, particularly in situations involving deeply ingrained social expectations or beliefs based on group membership.

Fairness becomes more elaborate with age, but so do stereotypes. We find that adolescents resort to group-functioning arguments much more often than do younger children.

In our view, experiencing positive inter-group contact in the elementary school period is particularly important for reducing inter-group tension in middle school, when social cliques and groups become highly salient forms of self-definition. If we wait until high school to discuss these topics, our task of facilitating a sense of justice and equality in our next generation is much more difficult.

From daily interactions, as well as from our nation’s history and beyond, children are learning to form their judgments about inclusion, exclusion, fairness and stereotypes. As adults, we have a responsibility to help children learn in order not to repeat the wrongs of using race, ethnicity or gender to decide how friendships are made, clubs are formed, or how institutions operate.

We can begin by listening to how children think and helping them navigate tough choices, between what’s expedient and what’s fair.