Health & Science

New study shows pervasive racial bias in child development research: Here’s what parents can do about it

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An alarming study led by Steven O. Roberts of the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences shows extensive racial bias in child development research, along with other scientific fields. This bias directly impacts families—in particular families of color. 

Every day, parents are faced with countless decisions, both big and small, about how to raise their children. From what to make them for breakfast, to how to navigate their most difficult experiences—parents, educators, and caregivers rely on the research of experts to guide their daily choices in the best interest of their families.

While most parents don’t make a habit of reading scholarly journals on child development and psychology, they do frequently turn to parenting websites, organizations such as ParentsTogether, social media, and news articles to inform their parenting decisions—and these sources often base their research and guidance on scientific journals and publications. 

What the study tells us

Roberts’ research team examined over 26,000 top-tier publications that are likely to be cited on more mainstream websites. They found a major underrepresentation of people of color in most study data—as well as a severe lack of any race data whatsoever in most cases. 

The study reveals that, from the 1970s to the 2010s, only 8 percent of research published in child development journals mentioned race. Of those studies that did highlight race, the vast majority were run by white scientists and published by white-led journals. This means that lots of the research that most parenting guidance is derived from may or may not even apply to non-white families.  

Why racial representation in science matters

As Roberts explains, “The reality is that racialized experiences shape how people think, develop, and behave. To dedicate no attention to this reality, in our view, is a disservice to psychological science, especially in the face of increasing racial diversity, segregation, and inequality.”

We know that things like our gender, socioeconomic status, and cultural background all impact how we raise our children, and how those children develop. Race is another factor that plays an important role in a child’s development and upbringing. 

When scientific studies neglect to include racial data or properly represent people of color in their studies, it puts parents of non-white children in the unfair position of having to assume that the guidance that works for white kids will work for them as well, without any actual data to back that up. 

What parents can do about racial bias in research

Roberts shared some advice for parents with Fatherly about how to overcome the discrepancy in racial data in child development research. 

  • Pay attention to detail—Articles that cite studies to back up their parenting tips should contain links to that study and other references. Click on those links, and do a little follow up to see what you can find out about the folks behind the study. As Roberts explains, “Be mindful of who’s writing the article and who’s editing it. Consider whose voice is not being shared or not being heard.”
  • Adjust your expectations—If you can’t find any information about race in the original study, it might be helpful to apply what you already know about your own experience or your child’s experience of race when taking new parenting guidance into consideration. Does what you’re reading sound like a tip that wouldn’t work for a child of color? It’s ok to be selective about what you incorporate into your own parenting. 
  • Embrace what works—Roberts makes it clear that one piece of parenting advice that shines above all others, no matter the race of your child, is to make sure they feel loved. The research couldn’t be more clear on this point—all kids thrive when they are shown consistent and reliable love and support. 
  • Have some hope for the future—Roberts’ study includes a set of recommendations to help journals make better choices around racial representation, and it’s already having a big impact! Leading developmental psychology journals are already changing their submission requirements to include representational data on race. 

With these caveats in mind, parents can get the most out of the parenting guidance from across their networks, while still keeping in mind the limitations of studies that don’t take race into consideration. With more studies like this one from Steven Roberts and his team, it’s possible that child development and other scientific fields will start to become more equitable and representative of all families in the near future. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.