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Children ‘relate to religious and political symbols’ from as young as five years old

Councillor warns study highlights need for cross-community projects in primary schools

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A little girl holds a Union flag at an Eleventh Night bonfire in Belfast

A little girl holds a Union flag at an Eleventh Night bonfire in Belfast

A little girl holds a Union flag at an Eleventh Night bonfire in Belfast

Children in Northern Ireland start forming preferences for religious and political symbols from as young as five years old, new research has shown.

The international study by academics from Queen’s University, Belfast found that youngsters from various conflict zones displayed the same behaviour patterns.

However, researchers also found children were willing to share resources across group lines, which they interpret as a positive sign for future peacebuilding.

The project was led by Dr Laura K Taylor, honorary senior lecturer in QUB’s School of Psychology, and included over 700 children from schools divided by ethnicity and religion.

“Understanding when children begin to relate to symbols has implications for conflict and its resolution,” she said.

“Our research shows that children begin to identify with symbols as early as the age of five but that as they get older — towards the age of 11 — they express higher in-group symbol preference. Interestingly, this is the case internationally.

“Across Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Macedonia, it is important to note that even though children preferred in-groups symbols, they were still sharing across group lines.

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“This out-group sharing can be a seed of peace.”

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The Irish flag flying at Government Buildings in Dublin

The Irish flag flying at Government Buildings in Dublin

The Irish flag flying at Government Buildings in Dublin

Dr Taylor, who is also assistant professor in the School of Psychology at University College Dublin, said the study sought the children’s perspectives on peace by asking them to draw pictures and explain their thoughts.

It revealed that they develop a stronger preference for symbols including flags, signs and sporting emblems during primary school.

But children who had a preference for symbols from their own group, shared less with pupils from a ‘conflict rival’ background.

Dr Taylor said the findings — which have been published in Development Psychology — highlight the implications for long-term peace building within society.

“Despite peace agreements in all three settings, the research highlights that tensions remain and children are socialised in the history of intergroup conflict,” she added.

“It is vitally important that we understand how in-group preferences develop in these early school years.

“The research suggests that primary school may be a sensitive period and potentially a good time to work on pro-social behaviour — behaviour that intends to benefit others.”

Dr Taylor added: “One way of addressing this could be through empathy interventions or promoting inclusive, overarching identities.”

The project included experts from UCD, Rochester Institute of Technology, Kosovo, and the American University College Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia.

SDLP councillor Carl Whyte sat on the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (Fict) which was set up by the Executive Office back in 2016.

He said the study highlights the importance of children being given opportunities to explore and understand their own cultural identity and those of others from a young age.

“It is vital if we’re to build a society where mutual respect and understanding are the norm,” he said.

“While aspects of this report may be alarming, it is our responsibility to ensure that divisions of the past are not passed onto future generations and the Department for Education must take action to ensure this.

“The research team have identified that primary school years are important in building mutual respect and the Department and CCEA should digest the learnings of this report and develop cross-cultural activities for children in all schools, not just those at secondary level.”


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