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Inclusiveness Counts

Children can influence each other for the better

by Marc Halusic and Ann Bettencourt, Ph.D.

We all know that your kids’ friends can influence what they do, how they feel, and how successful they are in school. That’s because friends show each other which behaviors are valued and which should be avoided. But there is another way in which friends are important for your child. Numerous, positive friendships with members of other ethnic groups have the potential to decrease their bias toward those groups. For example, research shows that white college students randomly assigned to live with an African American roommate showed less racial bias at the end of the academic year than white students who lived with a white roommate. More often, having one friend of another race or ethnicity isn’t enough; the key is cultivating multiple cross-ethnic friendships.

But why do some children reach out to form friendships across ethnic/racial lines to begin with, while others don’t? Obviously it helps to have diverse neighborhoods and schools. But as we know, many so-called diverse neighborhoods are characterized by a sort of “self-imposed segregation.”

Delving deeper into why children might reach out beyond their own groups, new research by Tropp, O’Brien, and Migacheva, published in the Journal of Social Issues, examines how children’s perceptions of the norms and attitudes of their same-ethnicity peers can influence children’s interest in forming cross-ethnic friendships.

To investigate these issues, Tropp and her colleagues conducted two broad survey studies. For the first study, children were recruited from two different middle schools, one predominantly white and the other predominantly African American. The children answered questions concerning how much they believed their same-ethnic peers approved of having cross-ethnic friends (inclusion norms), how often same-ethnic peers teased or told jokes about kids from other ethnic groups (exclusion norms), how much they personally would like to have cross-ethnic friendships, and how many cross-ethnic friendships they already had.

The findings indicated that, when they perceive that peers from their own ethnic group endorse inclusion norms, children are more likely to report interest in having cross-ethnic friendships; this association held even after controlling for the number of cross-ethnic friends those children had already. By contrast, perceiving that peers from their own ethnic group held exclusion norms had no detectable influence on their willingness to make cross-ethnic friends. The researchers replicated these findings in a second study, with white and Latino children from ethnically diverse schools. Again, Tropp and colleagues found that, when children perceived peers from their own ethnic group to be supportive of cross-ethnic friendships, they themselves were more interested in forming those friendships.

It is important to highlight that these studies investigated children’s perceptions of norms, rather than the actual prevailing norms of their peers per se. Other research has shown that, despite what actual norms, there is a significant impact of perceived peer norms on students’ behavior. For example, college students often believe that their peers binge drink more often than they actually do, and interventions designed to accurately inform students of actual peer drinking behavior have been shown to reduce binge drinking. Following from this perceptions of peer norms may play a role in the development of cross-ethnic friendships and intergroup harmony. The information gained from Tropp and colleagues’ studies offers a promising first step toward creating interventions that may seek to change perceptions of peer norms, and in turn, encourage the development of cross-ethnic acceptance and friendship.

Ann Bettencourt, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri.

Mark Halucek is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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