Feeling positive about one's identity is critical to a child's healthy development and life outcomes, yet parents and educators rarely discuss issues of identity with children, a study commissioned by Sesame Workshop finds.
Previous research has found that a positive sense of social identity can serve as a protective factor in the face of discrimination and other adverse experiences and is associated with greater self-esteem and tolerance as well as better outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, and that children learn about identity from an early age by observing the behaviors and comments of caregivers and other adults. Based on representative national surveys of parents and educators conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, the Sesame Workshop Identity Matters Study (HTML or PDF, 40 pages) found that, among six aspects of identity, parents believe race/ethnicity is the most important factor in children's ability to succeed in America, with two-thirds of parents seeing it as having either a major (31 percent) or minor (37 percent) impact, followed by social class (31 percent and 36 percent) and gender (23 percent and 43 percent).
The study also found that while majorities of parents said they were comfortable talking with their children about various aspects of identity, a far smaller share "often" discussed religion (23 percent), gender (11 percent), country of origin (11 percent), family composition (10 percent), race/ethnicity (10 percent), or social class (8 percent) with their children. Parents who were most likely to talk to their children about identity were more likely, on average, to report that their children have heard a negative comment about an aspect of their identity, including 46 percent of Muslim parents, 40 percent of African-American parents, and 32 percent of Asian-American parents.
To address the relative absence of conversation around elements of identity, the report's authors call for stepped-up efforts to raise public awareness of the potential for enduring bias to set in at an early age; greater support for positive depictions of diverse identities in popular media; a reframing of identity as a key dimension of early childhood; and deeper explorations of how school systems, afterschool programs, educational publishers, and media companies can acknowledge changing U.S. demographics and support educators in leading classroom conversations about identity.
"Seeing their identities in a positive way provides kids with a critical pathway to success in school and in life. The Sesame Workshop Identity Matters Study indicates that more work is needed to better understand this important topic," said Tanya Haider, Sesame Workshop's executive vice president for strategy, research, and ventures. "Many parents appear to be unaware of exactly how early children recognize identity-based differences, leading them to possibly under-emphasize this subject during their children's critical early years."