Brown University researchers have published the one of the first longitudinal studies demonstrating that children of first-generation immigrants develop their ethnic identity at an earlier age than previous research has shown. Additionally, a child’s positive sense of ethnic identity is associated with the desire to socialize with children of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The research is published in <a href=""><em>The International Journal of Behavioral Development</em></a>.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A study of more than 400 children of first-generation immigrants is among the first longitudinal studies to demonstrate that one’s ethnic identity forms prior to adolescence. Furthermore, the three-year study found that a child’s positive sense of ethnic identity is associated with the desire to socialize with children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Cynthia Garcia Coll, professor of education, and Amy Marks, both affiliated with Brown University’s Center for the Study of Human Development, conducted the research with colleagues from Howard University and University of Illinois–Chicago. Their findings are published in The International Journal of Behavioral Development.

The sample included two groups of children in first and fourth grades from first-generation Cambodian, Dominican and Portuguese families in Providence and East Providence, R.I. Researchers assessed the children’s emerging ethnic identities through a label selection procedure that involved the children selecting labels that described themselves. Categories included labels of nationality (i.e., Portuguese, Dominican); hyphenated (i.e., Portuguese-American); panethnic (i.e., Latino, Asian); racial (white or black); and ethno-linguistic (i.e., Spanish, English, Khmer). Each child was also asked a series of questions about their degree of ethnic pride, the centrality of their ethnic identity, and which label makes them the happiest.

Results demonstrate that second-generation children in three very different ethnic groups showed a robust awareness of their ethnic heritage and identified with being both part of their parents’ culture of origin, as well as being American.

Other findings include:

  • Children in all three groups reported similar levels of ethnic identity “centrality,” and all reported positive feelings of pride regarding being a member of their ethnic group.
  • Overall, older children demonstrated a greater amount of ethnic identification and exploration, indicated by a greater amount of label selection and higher degree of ethnic pride.
  • Children displayed a very high degree of accuracy in selecting labels; fewer than 3 percent of labels selected by children were incorrect.

“This research indicates these children are actively constructing this part of their identities, learning, and choosing from the environments they are part of,” said Garcia Coll, the Charles Pitts Robinson and John Palmer Barstow Professor of Education, Psychology and Pediatrics at Brown. “As adults we can’t adopt a color-blind posture, but should support them in these important psychological tasks.”

During years two and three of the study, children were asked about their preferences for socializing with children of their own and other ethnicities and racial groups. Displaying sets of photographs of white, black, Asian, and Latino groups of children, interviewers asked how comfortable the child was playing with and socializing with each group. Researchers measured each child’s social preference for the “ingroup” and a social preference for the “outgroup.”

Researchers found:

  • For all three ethnic groups, “ingroup” social preference was positively correlated with “outgroup” social preference, demonstrating the positive connection between these two social processes during middle childhood. In other words, explained Garcia Coll, having a strong ethnic identity is not associated with prejudices against other groups, as some past scholars have feared.
  • For all children, older age was associated with greater preferences to play with children of other ethnic groups.

“What we found at this early age is that children want to play with peers from their own ethnic backgrounds and peers from other backgrounds as well,” said Marks, adjunct assistant professor of human development at Brown’s Center for the Study of Human Development. “Importantly, the better children feel about their own ethnic identities, the more they want to play with others, regardless of ethnicity.”

Marks continued, “This has implications for understanding how to foster children’s social skills and friendships in today’s increasingly multicultural classroom environments. Today, one in five schoolchildren are from immigrant families, and that proportion is growing. Parents and teachers should support children in forming strong, positive cultural identities while encouraging children’s curiosities for interethnic group contact and friendships.”

This research was funded the Mittlemann Family Directorship at the Center, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation.