Children become aware of race and ethnicity as early as age 3, but their grasp of these concepts changes over time. Initially they see ethnicity in very literal terms and then increasingly become aware of societal prejudices and biases, according to a psychologist's model of how children view ethnicity and race throughout their development.

The model, devised by psychologist Stephen Quintana, PhD, holds that racial awareness eventually influences children's sense of pride in their heritage as they enter adolescence. For instance, Mexican-American youth Quintana interviewed indicated a preference for socializing with other Mexican-American teen-agers that actively and proudly expressed their ethnicity. Adolescents also tended to use the pronouns "us" and "we" more often when referring to their ethnic group than younger children.

Psychologists, counselors and teachers can use this model to develop interventions that reduce prejudice in children, says Quintana, an associate professor and director of training in the counseling and educational psychology departments at the University of Wisconsin­Madison and a member of APA's Committee on Children, Youth and Families.

Most interventions focus on the historical and ancestral features of ethnicity, says Quintana. But by sixth grade, many children understand the social consequences of ethnicity. Quintana is currently developing an intervention that takes into account children's different developmental stages and provides creative and positive ways for adolescents to express their ethnic identities.

To develop his model, Quintana and his research assistants interviewed about 500 Latino, African-American, Korean, Mexican, Brazilian, Guatemalan and Colombian children in Texas, Arizona, Chicago, Wisconsin and Latin America. The model divides children's developmental understanding of ethnicity and race into four levels:

  • Ages 3 to 6.Children think about racial differences in purely physical terms and may believe that racial status could change with surgery or if skin color was altered by staying in the sun too long.
  • Ages 6 to 10. Children understand that ethnic background is a function of ancestry that influences not only how people look but also the food they eat, the language they speak and the activities they enjoy. However, at this stage children have a literal understanding of ethnicity. The children Quintana interviewed, for instance, said being Mexican-American meant speaking Spanish and eating Mexican food. Consequently, this is a good age to expose them to different cultures, he says, because their conceptions of race and ethnicity tend to be colored less by societal biases, relative to other levels.
  • Ages 10 to 14. Children realize that ethnicity can be linked to social class. Sixth-graders grasp how political resources are allocated in neighborhoods and how affirmative action affects minorities, says Quintana. Often interracial and inter-ethnic friendships developed in elementary school end as social groups become more racially segregated, he says. Parents and teachers should be honest about the existence of racial and ethnic prejudice when talking with children in this age group, Quintana says.
  • Adolescence. Many teen-agers express pride in their heritage and a sense of belonging to a group as their view of ethnicity and race matures, says Quintana. Teachers and psychologists should help teen-agers express their ethnicity in positive ways rather than pressuring them to assimilate into the majority culture, Quintana says.

"The best time to address race and ethnicity is in middle childhood and early adolescence," he says, "because that's when they're able to go beyond the literal meaning of the words and make their own observations about race and ethnicity."