Rich, poor, middle-class. Parents often believe it’s their responsibility to shield their children from economic differences and social class.
But new research shows children as young as 5 years old are not economically blind. In fact, by the time they reach pre-kindergarten, children know the difference.
UCLA developmental psychologist Dr. Rashmita Mistry studies social stratification and the impact it has on children.
“So thinking about education and occupations and income and wealth. We think if we don’t draw attention to it, then maybe kids won’t think that it’s important," Mistry said. "In fact, what we know is it’s the opposite.”
Mistry’s team showed 5- to 8-year-olds four depictions of local neighborhoods and asked them which looked most like theirs. Most of the kids chose the middle-class photo. More than a third were also able to point to concrete reasons, such as the appearance of a house. She also asked them if it was fair that some people are rich and some are poor.
Elementary student Paulo Williams said, “Well it's not fair, but not a lot of things are fair.”
“I feel my family is rich because they have two wonderful children, me and my brother,” elementary student Charles Heath said.
Parents should continue the conversation at home. Don’t ignore your child’s observations. Use their curiosity to start a conversation.
Instead of saying “a homeless/poor person,” use phrases like “a person who is homeless.” This reinforces that poverty does not define a person but describes their current circumstances. Encourage concern, compassion and action.
“I think our task as adults is to help them make meaning of this,” Mistry said.
Mistry is working with teachers to develop a curriculum to help children understand why there are differences.
Mistry believes that engaging with children in conversations about meaningful similarities and differences between wealth and poverty is an important step to reducing stereotypical beliefs and nurturing a sense of civic identity. When children view poverty and inequality as unfair, they will work to correct the disparities.