Messages Sent Versus Messages Received

In light of the complexity and subtlety of racial/ethnic socialization processes, it seems quite likely that the messages parents intend to communicate differ from the messages children actually receive (or report receiving). That is, children can miss, misinterpret, or ignore parents' communications about race, and parents can selectively remember and report only those messages that they intend to send and those messages that they would like their children to receive. In fact, in a study focused on African American families, Marshall (1995) found a great deal of incongruity between parents' and their 9- to 10-year-old children's reports of racial/ethnic socialization. However, such disparities may have multiple sources. For example, Barnes (1980) found that African American children of mothers who reported more frequent race-related socialization were less likely than other children to demonstrate pro-Black attitudes, suggesting that either parent's intended messages about racial pride may have been interpreted by children as negative messages about African Americans or that parents failed to report their own behaviors accurately. Interestingly, in Marshall's (1995) study, parents' reports of ethnic socialization were significantly correlated with children's ethnic identity stage, whereas children's reports were not. Thus, a variety of questions concerning the correspondence between parents' reports of racial/ethnic socialization and both children's reports of racial/ethnic socialization and children's outcomes (e.g., group identification, self-esteem) need to be explored. This is especially important given the overemphasis on proactive, explicit, verbal, messages among researchers studying racial/ethnic socialization to date. That is, we need to explore both how racial/ethnic socialization occurs in day to day life as well as the degree to which the messages parents willingly report actually influence children.


The empirical literature on racial/ethnic socialization has, in part, focused on understanding the nature and content of the racial/ethnic socialization messages that parents transmit to their children. Many of these studies have utilized in-depth interviews with African American and other ethnic minority parents to identify the most prominent themes that emerge when parents are asked to consider the role of race and ethnicity in their parenting practices (e.g., Marshall, 1995; Thornton, Chatters, Taylor, & Allen, 1990). In this section, we attempt to describe more fully the different types of racial/ethnic socialization messages that parents may communicate and the consequences of such messages for children's adaptation and well being. These include: (a) emphasizing racial and ethnic pride, traditions, and history (termed "cultural socialization"); (b) promoting an awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination (termed "preparation for bias"); (c) issuing cautions and warnings about other racial and ethnic groups, or about intergroup relations (termed "promotion of mistrust"); and (d) emphasizing the need to appreciate all racial and ethnic groups (termed "egalitarianism") (Boykin & Toms, 1985; Thornton et al., 1990; Demo & Hughes, 1990; Sanders Thompson, 1994).

Although we describe these types of racial/ethnic socialization message separately, it seems likely that particular racial/ethnic socialization messages as they occur in everyday conversation are less readily distinguishable. For instance, messages emphasizing cultural pride and history (cultural socialization) also may contain messages about historical discrimination and prejudice (preparation for bias), at least among minority populations in the United States. Similarly, parents may inadvertently embed cautions or warnings about other groups (promotion of mistrust) in their efforts to prepare children for racial bias (preparation for bias). Thus, different types of messages are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, research is needed to identify how messages occur together in natural day to day exchanges.

Cultural Socialization

Cultural socialization has been used commonly to refer to parental practices that teach children about cultural heritage, ancestry, and history; that maintain and promote cultural customs and traditions; and that instill cultural, racial, and ethnic pride (Boykin & Toms, 1985; Thornton et al., 1990). Cultural socialization may be evidenced in a wide range of behaviors including: talking or reading books to children about important people in the history of their ethnic or racial group, celebrating cultural holidays, exposing children to positive role models, and so forth. Importantly, these sorts of practices have been central to many researchers' ideas about racial/ethnic socialization (Barnes, 1980; Bowman & Howard, 1985; Chen, 1998; Hughes & Chen, 1997; Knight, Bernal, Garza, Cota, & Ocampo, 1993; Ou & McAdoo, 1993; Peters, 1985; Sanders Thompson, 1994; Smith, Atkins & Connell, 2003; Spencer, 1983; Stevenson, 1994; Thornton et al., 1990).

A number of studies have found that most parents of color engage in cultural socialization practices with their children. For example, in Phinney and Chavira's (1995) study of parents with adolescent children, 88% of Mexican American, 83% of African American, and 67% of Japanese American parents described behaviors associated with cultural socialization. Spencer (1983) also found that about three quarters of southern Black mothers in her sample taught their children about Black history and famous Black leaders, although only one third of them taught their children about the civil rights movement in the United States. Hughes and Chen (1999) found that over two thirds of urban African American parents in dual-earner married families had engaged in cultural socialization practices within the previous year (e.g., reading children Black history books and storybooks, taking children to cultural events).

Scholars have consistently theorized that cultural socialization promotes children's positive racial identity development and self-esteem by preparing children to interpret and cope with prejudice, discrimination, and negative group images emanating from the outside world (e.g., Barnes, 1980). Empirical studies have suggested that cultural socialization is associated with favorable outcomes for minority youth, particularly in terms of children's ethnic identity and their knowledge and attitudes regarding their ethnic group. For example, Demo and Hughes (1990) found that Black adults who recalled that their parents had emphasized racial pride, cultural heritage, and racial tolerance reported greater feelings of closeness to other Blacks and more Afrocentric racial attitudes than did those who reported no racial/ethnic socialization. Branch and Newcombe (1986) also found that children of parents who taught them in more of a pro-Black fashion were more likely than their counterparts to have higher racial awareness, higher racial knowledge, and greater pro-Black preferences. In Knight and colleagues' (Knight et al., 1993) study, Mexican American school-age children whose mothers taught them more about Mexican culture, and those with more Mexican objects in their homes, were more likely than their peers to use racial-ethnic self-labels correctly, to engage in more racial-ethnic behaviors (e.g., language use, engagement in games from Mexican culture), and to have greater same-race/ethnic preferences. In their study of Chinese American families, Ou and McAdoo (1993) found that Chinese parents' cultural socialization was associated with greater preferences for same-race/ethnic peers among first- and second-grade girls. Notably, although it is unclear the conditions under which same-race ethnic preferences have positive or negative long-term consequences, the assumption to date has been that it is indicative of positive attitudes toward, or affiliations with, one's own ethnic group.

The consequences of cultural socialization may go beyond racial-specific child outcomes, such as ethnic identity, to reach other important aspects of children's lives (e.g., academic achievement). For instance, Smith, Atkins, & Connell (2003) found that African American parents' socialization concerning ethnic pride and racial-ethnic equality was consistently related to their children's better grades and higher test scores. Moreover, cultural socialization may have salutary influences on minority youth by way of its influence on their positive ethnic identity which, in turn, has been associated with a broad range of outcomes, such as school performance, the quality of relations with peers, and psychosocial adjustment (Phinney & Kohatsu, 1997; Porter & Washington, 1993).

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