Red! No, Blue! No, Light Blue!

Why do little kids care so much about favorite colors?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

When my older daughter was close to 4, in a ritual repeated by thousands of approximately 40-inch-high females across the country each day, she declared that her favorite color was pink. From that day forth, she only wanted to wear pink clothing and shoes. Her favorite book was Pinkalicious. She also wanted a pink bed and a pink room. So when it came time to create a proper bedroom for her and her younger sister—before that, they’d been sleeping in separate rooms, one of which had no windows and the other of which co-functioned as my husband’s office—it seemed obvious that I should have the walls painted pink.

The only question was finding the right shade. My first mistake was to show my daughter the two dozen color strips that I’d brought home from the hardware store. Of course, she picked out the shade that best resembled bubblegum. Counting on her short memory—and prepared to claim that the paint came out lighter on the wall than it looked in the picture—I instead bought 2 gallons of a pale shade from Benjamin Moore called Pink Bliss. I even ordered matching pink-and-white polka-dot curtains. I thought my daughters would be as pleased by the results as I was—and they were, at first. But they hadn’t been sleeping in the room for three months when the older one, about to enter kindergarten, announced that her favorite color was now bright blue—and that she didn’t like pink anymore.

Frustrated, I recounted this turn of events to a friend with a daughter older than mine. “I didn’t want to say anything at the time, because you seemed so excited about doing a pink bedroom,” she said, with a sympathetic-yet-knowing smile. “But you would have been better off going with pale yellow.” How was I to know? I hadn’t yet realized that the color preferences of young children were an ever-evolving argument.

As it happened, however, my younger daughter had just turned 3½—and simultaneously announced, as if on cue, that her favorite color was now pink. So at least I had her in my camp. And I still do—though, as she celebrates her fourth birthday next month, her tastes seem to be in flux, too. Just last week, she told me that she only liked dark pink, not light pink anymore. She’s also gotten interested in red and light blue — “because it’s Mommy’s favorite color,” she always says. (After seeing how important favorite colors were to my daughters, I intuited that I needed to choose one of my own—even though, in truth I don’t actually have a favorite color and, like most adults, hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff.) Meanwhile, my older daughter’s appetite for all things azure has been redirected to green, purple, and black. The only constant seems to be a continued fascination with colors themselves.

What makes the topic of favorite colors so darn interesting to the preschool and early-grade-school set? Is it all merchandising and peer pressure, or are particular colors actually speaking to these kids?

In rejecting pink, my older daughter was clearly sending the message that she’d outgrown toddlerdom and its ubiquitous princess culture, tiaras and all. I was proud of her, but also annoyed—mostly with myself for paying so much to the housepainter for those two coats of Pink Bliss. “Somewhere around 3 years old, children become obsessed with differences in people,” explains Meri Wallace, a parenting expert and author. “I’m a boy; she’s a girl. She has blond hair; she has curly hair. They spend the rest of their childhoods trying to define themselves. Having a favorite color makes them unique. Just as having a special game or liking certain people does. It’s all about, I can choose.”

At the same time, the desire to fit in is intense. Or, as Wallace puts it, “The Who am I? is followed a short time later by Do I fit in with the rest of the kids?” Which is why, according to Wallace, more often than not, children get their favorite color idea from a friend. And if boys don’t spend quite as much time talking about favorite colors, perceiving it to be “girl talk”? Well, the same forces are at work when all the males in one class start wearing, say, stripes.

But are color preferences themselves really that arbitrary? Marilyn Read*, an associate professor of design and human environment at Oregon State University, agrees that children’s self-declared favorite hues are socially constructed. Yet she believes that their attraction to color in general goes far deeper than societal pressures and expectations. In fact, the presence of color may be necessary for their mental health. In a recent study in which Read measured the impact of color in preschool buildings, she found that in spaces with one red wall—versus those with uniformly white ones—children are more cooperative. At the same time, when spaces present a panoply of colors, as most preschools do, children become overstimulated, even anxious. “When children are very young, they use color and shape to identify things,” says Read. “Only after the age of 5 do they begin to describe things in terms of texture or line. Color is [therefore] salient.” A single bold color—whether in a classroom or in a child’s self-definition—seems to offer a sense of security. A new study Read is conducting around young children with sensory-processing issues, including autism, even seems to suggest that such kids are better able to focus in the presence of a single color fabric hanging, no matter what the color.*

Yet there’s reason to believe that human reactions to particular colors are biologically determined, as well. According to Read, the color red makes people’s blood pressure rise and can create anxiety. “If people want children to act in a calmer way, they should go with blue or another cooler color,” she advises. Even little girls’ love affair with the color pink—forever the object of much hand-wringing by parents uneasy with the message it sends—may be innate. “Pink is a color that makes us hungry. It’s also a color that boys like until they’re told not to like it,” says Read, who notes just one case in which gender differences in color preference might be nature not nurture: Some researchers suggest that boys tend to prefer yellow-based reds (think: tomatoes), while girls prefer blue-based reds (think: rubies). Both boys and girls tend to dislike orange. This, however, would come as news to my friend Nora’s son, a first-grader who keeps a running list of his top five colors. His current No. 1? Orange, followed by green, gold, silver, and red.

Then again, Read cautions against understanding children’s color preferences out of context. A child may like a certain color because a favorite doll or action figure has a dress or cape that shade. What’s more, Read says, children who are forever changing their color preferences might, above all, be exhibiting a personality characteristic: The more secure a child’s sense of self, the more likely she is to stick to one favorite color for a while.

And bright hues must be especially exciting to young kids when contrasted with the increasingly dull and color-less world in which the grown-ups toil. Indeed, when it comes to adult self-adornment, dark neutrals for both genders—especially in urban centers—now rule the day. (If you don’t believe me, stand on a train platform in winter and try to find someone who isn’t wearing a black, gray, or dark blue coat.) My editor’s daughters ask him daily to put on ties—for him, a symbol of besuited drudgery, but for them, colorful and playful accents more lively than anything else in his everyday wardrobe.

Similarly, on the one or two occasions a week that I put on a piece of clothing that isn’t colored black or made of denim—say, my favorite green-and-white blouse, or the hippie patchwork skirt that belonged to my mother in the ‘70s—my daughters exclaim with delight and surprise. Sometimes, they even tell me I look beautiful. Though I suspect that what they really mean is that I look more like, well, them.

*Corrections, April 18, 2012: This article misspelled the last name of professor Marilyn Read. In addition, the study Read is currently conducting spans the spectrum of children with sensory-processing issues, not just autistic children. (Return.)