Young children don’t blindly adopt adult norms
Every parent knows how stubborn young children can be when it comes to following the rules. After you’ve invested time and energy teaching them the basics of life in a civilized society, despite the fact that they’ve shown little interest in learning them, at some point preschool children become quite insistent on following and enforcing rules. This sometimes happens in situations when it would be better to be flexible. Perhaps you have just told your neighbour how beautiful her new dress is, right after calling it ugly behind her back – only to have your child remind you that you shouldn’t tell a lie.
“Even preschool-aged children have some understanding of the diversity of the norms and rules that guide our social lives.”
Young children’s grasp of social norms has long been a topic of interest in child psychology. For decades researchers have thought that a preschool child’s worldview is essentially authoritarian – that is, that young children perceive rules as absolute and unchangeable, and believe that everyone should therefore obey them. Jean Piaget, a founding father of the study of moral development, labelled this stage of moral development heteronomous morality, a time when young children adopt norms from adults and view them as always valid.
Recent work, however, suggests that a child’s understanding of norms develops somewhat differently. In one study, 4-7-year-old children were shown videos of three children playing a sorting game together. In some cases, the rules of the game were determined by one of the three children, while in others they were formulated collaboratively by the group or by an adult.
When the rules were set by one child or by an adult, children viewing the video assumed that the rules could be changed only by the individual who had introduced those rules. When the rules were determined by collective agreement, older children believed that no one could change them, while younger children thought that any of the children could do so. In either case, they seemed to consider how the rules were made when thinking about their flexibility.
Young children are also aware that there are different kinds of rules. Most notably, they can clearly distinguish between moral norms and mere social conventions. In relevant studies, children are presented with various rules that apply at school. These might include a requirement that students wear uniforms, a typical social convention; or the rule that students should not hit each other, a typical moral norm. Usually, children agree that these norms hold for all students.
Then the children are asked whether the same norms will still apply if the teacher decides that they don’t need to be followed – or whether they also apply to children in another country. It is interesting to note that preschool children insist that moral norms should be followed, but agree that it would be permissible to change a social convention. This shows, once again, that even preschool-aged children have some understanding of the diversity of the norms and rules that guide our social lives.
“The process of learning the rules of the social world is not a one-way street, with adults teaching children; instead, it is a process that benefits from negotiation and explanation.”
What recent research shows, therefore, is that rather than only adopting adult norms, young children are actively involved in the formulation, negotiation, and interpretation of rules. So the process of learning the rules of the social world is not a one-way street, with adults teaching children; instead, it is a process that benefits from negotiation and explanation.
Rakoczy, H., & Schmidt, M. F. H. (2013). The early ontogeny of social norms. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 17–21.
Turiel, E. (2002). The culture of morality. Social development, context, and conflict. Cambridge: University Press.
Wörle, M., & Paulus, M. (2017). Normative expectations about fairness: The development of a charity norm in preschoolers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.