Study Shows How Kids Learn to Conform

For the most part, 4-year-olds don’t care a whole lot about social norms. But then 9-year-olds do. An article published in the journal Child Development looks at what happens between these two ages: how do kids become aware of the norms that bind us and eventually them? Knowing the answer can help us help our kids avoid it.

The article by Robin Banerjee, Mark Bennett and Nikki Luke of the University of Sussex reports the results of three experiments with kids aged 4-9, exploring kids’ reactions to terrible faux pas like the following: “Imagine that it is Winter but your Mummy has bought you some lovely new swimming trunks for your next Summer holiday. You like them so much that you take them in to school and at play time you put them on over your clothes. Everyone sees you do it.”

Forsooth! Oh, the ignominy and shame!

But here’s the thing: 4-year-olds don’t necessarily experience this ignominy and shame – in the story above, all they’re likely to feel is the joy of wearing radical new shorts. But 9-year-olds and perhaps even adults like you see the faux pas – culture prohibits wearing swim trunks over pants, no matter how radical is your swimwear. How does this happen? How does a blissfully unaware 4-year-old learn to kowtow to the social norms of shorts haters?

Let’s take a look at the first experiment. In it, the researchers paired stories of social transgressions like the one above with stories of moral transgressions like this: “Imagine that you are playing outside with lots of other children. You are feeling really cross with one of the boys/girls so you hit him ⁄her. Everyone sees you do it.”

It turns out there’s a cool difference in the way these 91 kids experienced moral transgressions versus the way they experienced breaking social norms. Moral transgressions are easy: no matter a child’s age, they recognized the heinousness of these moral affronts of violence and theft, and they realized the need to repair the situation by taking care of the victim – by apologizing or returning what was stolen.

But as they aged, kids counter-intuitively saw social rule-breaking as increasingly less bad – a 4-year-old thought it was heinous to wear swim trunks over pants or to burp during circle time, but a 9-year-old realized that inappropriate application of swimwear or poorly timed belching was unlikely to unseat the Earth from its axis. That said, at the same time kids rated the seriousness of social crimes lower as they aged, their evaluations of the shame and embarrassment they would feel after committing these social crimes skyrocketed. As they aged from 4 to 9, kids learned that crimes against manners and politeness and norms and fad weren’t on par with violence and theft – but at the same time, they learned to be shamed and embarrassed by them.

In the case of moral crimes, kids’ guilt tells them to repair their relationship with the victim. In the case of social crimes, kids’ embarrassment tells them to repair their relationship with society. Guilt comes early and easily, and researchers explored the genesis of embarrassment in their second experiment.

In it, they gave the stories of moral transgressions (punching, stealing, etc.) to 192 new kids, only this time they told the kids they were being videotaped so their teachers and peers could watch the tapes later – a common sneaky scientist trick to boost awareness of the self as an object within a social landscape. When made to view themselves as social objects, “their self-presentational concerns following moral transgressions were highlighted,” the researchers write, meaning that with boosted self-consciousness, kids felt that even after a moral transgression, not only did they have to repair the situation, but they also had to repair their public image – self-consciousness led to embarrassment, led to the need to save face.

In the third experiment, the researchers manipulated the reactions of hypothetical onlookers in these stories – were story actions met with outrage or ennui? When the last sentence said, “Nobody says anything,” kids tended not to imagine their embarrassment. When the last sentence said, “Some of the other children say ‘That was really naughty of you,’ and some of the other children say ‘You were being really silly,’” kids were embarrassed.

In other breaking news, the researchers reported that kids who didn’t drink water felt thirsty. Kidding, of course.

But these seemingly simple results hide a cool conclusion. “Rule violations between 4 and 9 years of age provide a crucial window for the early emergence of reasoning about threats to public identity,” the researchers write. Translated from Brit Academese to American English, it means that breaking social norms is an opportunity – the rule breaker has put their public identity under threat and can choose to repair that identity or fall further from the fold. Only if a peer group responds negatively to social rule breaking does the rules breaker’s embarrassment kick in and make the kid want to conform.

You can probably imagine the parenting conclusions — by exposing your child to the norming power of peers between ages 4 and 9, you can help create a child that doesn’t wear swim trunks over pants. Or by making your child aware of this normative power of peers, you can help him or her make the informed decision whether or not they want to be that kid apart from the group… wearing a radical pair of swim shorts.

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