Children’s Culture: Are Adults Fit to Create it?

Whether done explicitly or not, children’s culture, more specifically children’s play, has been significantly and continuously impacted by racism in American society. As Richard Flynn’s Keyword article “Culture” asserts, children’s culture can be constructed both by adults and by children themselves. Robin Bernstein’s “Children’s Books, Dolls, and the Performance of Race; or, The Possibility of Children’s Literature” discusses the potential for 19th Century children’s literature to invite acts of racialized violence and forced labor through representational play. Bernstein also describes how different forms of play were also encouraged through dolls—while white dolls were often fragile and ceramic, promoting careful play, black dolls were made and advertised to withstand rough usage and be “thrown about”. Interestingly, this discussion reminded me of the well-known and replicated “doll tests” done by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Rather than using dolls manufactured to invite different types of play, the dolls in their study appeared almost identical, apart from their skin color. They found that children of color overwhelmingly associated negative characteristics with dolls of color and positive characteristics with white dolls. Although these children may not have directly been given 19th century literature or racially insensitive dolls, the findings from this study unfortunately serve as proof of racial bias’s influence on children’s culture. They compel us to ask where children are absorbing these messages and to think critically about who is granted the power to define the culture we cultivate for children. This may be radical, but perhaps it is children, not adults, who are more suited to shape and define their own culture.

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1 thought on “Children’s Culture: Are Adults Fit to Create it?”

  1. This was a really interesting post to read! I’ve never heard of the “doll tests” before, and quite honestly I’m not surprised by the results. The “doll tests” remind me of a video I watched the other week where people of many different races and genders went through an implicit bias test. Some were surprised by their results and others were not. You bring up an interesting point that maybe children are more suited to shape and define their own culture. I’ve never thought about altering culture like this before as I always figured that children were supposed to look up to adults, but this is an interesting and thought-provoking suggestion.

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