Friday, August 14, 2015

Big bird can't do for your children what you might be unwilling to do yourself

This is an interesting finding from Big Bird and Your Budding Bigot by Tom Jacobs.

In children's literature there have long been advocacy groups monomaniacally focused on increasing "representation" in children's literature. They are well intentioned people but their belief is that children are measurably affected by the presence or absence of characters that look like them in the books they read. The argument is that children won't like to read unless they see themselves.

For all the good intentions, I have long held that there is no basis for this belief. Immigrant groups arrive in the US (and other countries) and their children do perfectly well with no representation in the classic children's literature and the children of those immigrants have normal to better than normal life outcomes. In a recent survey of what children considered important in books they might want to read, only 17% indicated "looks like me" was important. There simply is no evidence that the contents of what is recreationally read as a child has any determinable impact on life outcomes. There are two caveats to that statement. 1) Simply the act of reading has a measurable impact on life outcomes (regardless of what is read) and 2) Purposeful reading (in contrast to elective reading) also has a measurable impact on life outcomes.

Otherwise, there is no connection and the whole movement to increase "representation" is, regardless of the good intentions, a wasted effort based on normative sociology and wishful thinking.

Jacobs article provides support for that position. The researchers were hoping to find that children exposed to multicultural or multiethnic casts in children's TV programming would demonstrate less non-group negative affiliation.
The years between the ages of three and six are particularly precious. That's the period kids begin school, start to establish their independence ... and form their racial and ethnic prejudices.

Attempting to counteract that last, problematic development has been a longtime goal of the creators of educational television series. Sadly, however, a research team led by Marie-Louise Mares of the University of Wisconsin–Madison reports the impact of such shows appears to be extremely limited.

"Despite our vigorous attempts to unearth associations between children's racial attitudes and their exposure to these types of programs, there were no significant direct effects of exposure to intergroup friendship shows such as Sesame Street, and minority hero shows such as Dora the Explorer," the researchers write in the journal American Behavioral Scientist.
Expecting that something as complex as prejudicial animus can simply be avoided by sitting children in front of a television is nobly hopeful but naively insulting. You can't program out positive or negative affiliation.

Everyone wants silver bullets and shortcuts but there is no avoiding the hard work of modelling to children and living a life of tolerance and respectfulness.

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