What are some of the key concepts related to emotional and social development during this phase?

chapter 8 Emotional and Social Development in Early Childhood

During the preschool years, children make great strides in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, and they build on these skills as they form first friendships—special relationships marked by attachment and common interests.

chapter outline

·   Erikson’s Theory: Initiative versus Guilt

·   Self-Understanding

·   Foundations of Self-Concept

·   Emergence of Self-Esteem

· ■  CULTURAL INFLUENCES  Cultural Variations in Personal Storytelling: Implications for Early Self-Concept

·   Emotional Development

·   Understanding Emotion

·   Emotional Self-Regulation

·   Self-Conscious Emotions

·   Empathy and Sympathy

·   Peer Relations

·   Advances in Peer Sociability

·   First Friendships

·   Peer Relations and School Readiness

·   Parental Influences on Early Peer Relations

·   Foundations of Morality

·   The Psychoanalytic Perspective

·   Social Learning Theory

·   The Cognitive-Developmental Perspective

·   The Other Side of Morality: Development of Aggression

· ■  CULTURAL INFLUENCES  Ethnic Differences in the Consequences of Physical Punishment

·   Gender Typing

·   Gender-Stereotyped Beliefs and Behaviors

·   Biological Influences on Gender Typing

·   Environmental Influences on Gender Typing

·   Gender Identity

·   Reducing Gender Stereotyping in Young Children

· ■  SOCIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION  Young Children Learn About Gender Through Mother–Child Conversations

·   Child Rearing and Emotional and Social Development

·   Styles of Child Rearing

·   What Makes Authoritative Child Rearing Effective?

·   Cultural Variations

·   Child Maltreatment


As the children in Leslie’s classroom moved through the preschool years, their personalities took on clearer definition. By age 3, they voiced firm likes and dislikes as well as new ideas about themselves. “Stop bothering me,” Sammy said to Mark, who had reached for Sammy’s beanbag as Sammy aimed it toward the mouth of a large clown face. “See, I’m great at this game,” Sammy announced with confidence, an attitude that kept him trying, even though he missed most of the throws.

The children’s conversations also revealed early notions about morality. Often they combined adults’ statements about right and wrong with forceful attempts to defend their own desires. “You’re ‘posed to share,” stated Mark, grabbing the beanbag out of Sammy’s hand.

“I was here first! Gimme it back,” demanded Sammy, pushing Mark. The two boys struggled until Leslie intervened, provided an extra set of beanbags, and showed them how they could both play.

As the interaction between Sammy and Mark reveals, preschoolers quickly become complex social beings. Young children argue, grab, and push, but cooperative exchanges are far more frequent. Between ages 2 and 6, first friendships form, in which children converse, act out complementary roles, and learn that their own desires for companionship and toys are best met when they consider others’ needs and interests.

The children’s developing understanding of their social world was especially apparent in their growing attention to the dividing line between male and female. While Priti and Karen cared for a sick baby doll in the housekeeping area, Sammy, Vance, and Mark transformed the block corner into a busy intersection. “Green light, go!” shouted police officer Sammy as Vance and Mark pushed large wooden cars and trucks across the floor. Already, the children preferred peers of their own gender, and their play themes mirrored their culture’s gender stereotypes.

This chapter is devoted to the many facets of early childhood emotional and social development. We begin with Erik Erikson’s theory, which provides an overview of personality change in the preschool years. Then we consider children’s concepts of themselves, their insights into their social and moral worlds, their gender typing, and their increasing ability to manage their emotional and social behaviors. Finally, we ask, What is effective child rearing? And we discuss the complex conditions that support good parenting or lead it to break down.

image1 Erikson’s Theory: Initiative versus Guilt

Erikson ( 1950 ) described early childhood as a period of “vigorous unfolding.” Once children have a sense of autonomy, they become less contrary than they were as toddlers. Their energies are freed for tackling the psychological conflict of the preschool years:  initiative versus guilt . As the word initiative suggests, young children have a new sense of purposefulness. They are eager to tackle new tasks, join in activities with peers, and discover what they can do with the help of adults. They also make strides in conscience development.

Erikson regarded play as a means through which young children learn about themselves and their social world. Play permits preschoolers to try new skills with little risk of criticism and failure. It also creates a small social organization of children who must cooperate to achieve common goals. Around the world, children act out family scenes and highly visible occupations—police officer, doctor, and nurse in Western societies, rabbit hunter and potter among the Hopi Indians, hut builder and spear maker among the Baka of West Africa (Göncü, Patt, & Kouba,  2004 ).

Recall that Erikson’s theory builds on Freud’s psychosexual stages (see  Chapter 1  page 16 ). In Freud’s Oedipus and Electra conflicts, to avoid punishment and maintain parents’ affection, children form a superego, or conscience, by identifying with the same-sex parent. As a result, they adopt the moral and gender-role standards of their society. For Erikson, the negative outcome of early childhood is an overly strict superego that causes children to feel too much guilt because they have been threatened, criticized, and punished excessively by adults. When this happens, preschoolers’ exuberant play and bold efforts to master new tasks break down.

A Guatemalan 3-year-old pretends to shell corn. By acting out family scenes and highly visible occupations, young children around the world develop a sense of initiative, gaining insight into what they can do and become in their culture.

Although Freud’s ideas are no longer accepted as satisfactory explanations of conscience development, Erikson’s image of initiative captures the diverse changes in young children’s emotional and social lives. Early childhood is, indeed, a time when children develop a confident self-image, more effective control over their emotions, new social skills, the foundations of morality, and a clear sense of themselves as boy or girl.

image2 Self-Understanding

The development of language enables young children to talk about their own subjective experience of being. In  Chapter 7 , we noted that young children acquire a vocabulary for talking about their inner mental lives and gain in understanding of mental states. As self-awareness strengthens, preschoolers focus more intently on qualities that make the self unique. They begin to develop a  self-concept , the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is.

Foundations of Self-Concept

Ask a 3- to 5-year-old to tell you about himself, and you are likely to hear something like this: “I’m Tommy. See, I got this new red T-shirt. I’m 4 years old. I can wash my hair all by myself. I have a new Tinkertoy set, and I made this big, big tower.” Preschoolers’ self-concepts consist largely of observable characteristics, such as their name, physical appearance, possessions, and everyday behaviors (Harter,  2006 ; Watson,  1990 ).

By age 3½, children also describe themselves in terms of typical emotions and attitudes—“I’m happy when I play with my friends”; “I don’t like scary TV programs”; “I usually do what Mommy says”—suggesting a beginning understanding of their unique psychological characteristics (Eder & Mangelsdorf,  1997 ). And by age 5, children’s degree of agreement with such statements coincides with maternal reports of their personality traits, indicating that older preschoolers have a sense of their own timidity, agreeableness, and positive or negative affect (Brown et al.,  2008 ). But preschoolers do not yet say, “I’m helpful” or “I’m shy.” Direct references to personality traits must wait for greater cognitive maturity.

A warm, sensitive parent–child relationship seems to foster a more positive, coherent early self-concept. In one study, 4-year-olds with a secure attachment to their mothers were more likely than their insecurely attached agemates to describe themselves in favorable terms at age 5—with statements that reflect agreeableness and positive affect (Goodvin et al.,  2008 ). Also recall from  Chapter 7  that securely attached preschoolers participate in more elaborative parent–child conversations about personally experienced events, which help them understand themselves (see  page 240 ).

Cultural Influences Cultural Variations in Personal Storytelling: Implications for Early Self-Concept

Preschoolers of many cultural backgrounds participate in personal storytelling with their parents. Striking cultural differences exist in parents’ selection and interpretation of events in these narratives, affecting the way children view themselves.

In one study, researchers spent thousands of hours studying the storytelling practices of six middle-SES Irish-American families in Chicago and six middle-SES Chinese families in Taiwan. From extensive videotapes of adults’ conversations with the children from age 2½; to 4, the investigators identified personal stories and coded them for content (Miller, Fung, & Mintz,  1996 ; Miller et al.,  1997  2012 ).

Parents in both cultures discussed pleasurable holidays and family excursions in similar ways and with similar frequency. But five times more often than the Irish-American parents, the Chinese parents told long stories about their preschooler’s previous misdeeds—using impolite language, writing on the wall, or playing in an overly rowdy way. These narratives, often sparked by a current misdeed, were used as opportunities to educate: Parents conveyed stories with warmth and caring, stressed the impact of misbehavior on others (“You made Mama lose face”), and often ended with direct teaching of proper behavior and a moral lesson (“Saying dirty words is not good”). By contrast, in the few instances in which Irish-American stories referred to transgressions, parents downplayed their seriousness, attributing them to the child’s spunk and assertiveness.

Early narratives about the child launch preschoolers’ self-concepts on culturally distinct paths (Miller, Fung, & Koven,  2007 ). Influenced by Confucian traditions of strict discipline and social obligations, Chinese parents integrated these values into their stories, affirming the importance of not disgracing the family and explicitly conveying expectations for improvement in the story’s conclusion. Although Irish-American parents disciplined their children, they rarely dwelt on misdeeds in storytelling. Rather, they cast the child’s shortcomings in a positive light, perhaps to promote self-esteem.

A Chinese mother speaks gently to her child about proper behavior. Chinese parents often tell preschoolers stories that point out the negative impact on others of the child’s misdeeds. The Chinese child’s self-concept, in turn, emphasizes social obligations.

Whereas most Americans believe that favorable self-esteem is crucial for healthy development, Chinese adults generally see it as unimportant or even negative—as impeding the child’s willingness to listen and be corrected (Miller et al., 2002). Consistent with this view, the Chinese parents did little to cultivate their child’s individuality. Instead, they used storytelling to guide the child toward responsible behavior. Hence, the Chinese child’s self-image emphasizes obligations to others, whereas the American child’s is more autonomous.

As early as age 2, parents use narratives of past events to impart rules, standards for behavior, and evaluative information about the child: “You added the milk when we made the mashed potatoes. That’s a very important job!” (Nelson,  2003 ). As the  Cultural Influences  box above reveals, these self-evaluative narratives are a major means through which caregivers imbue the young child’s self-concept with cultural values.

As they talk about personally significant events and as their cognitive skills advance, preschoolers gradually come to view themselves as persisting over time. Around age 4, children first become certain that a video image of themselves replayed a few minutes after it was filmed is still “me” (Povinelli,  2001 ). Similarly, when researchers asked 3- to 5-year-olds to imagine a future event (walking next to a waterfall) and to envision a future personal state by choosing from three items (a raincoat, money, a blanket) the one they would need to bring with them, performance—along with future-state justifications (“I’m gonna get wet”)—increased sharply from age 3 to 4 (Atance & Meltzoff,  2005 ).

Emergence of Self-Esteem

Another aspect of self-concept emerges in early childhood:  self-esteem , the judgments we make about our own worth and the feelings associated with those judgments.  TAKE A MOMENT … Make a list of your own self-judgments. Notice that, besides a global appraisal of your worth as a person, you have a variety of separate self-evaluations concerning how well you perform at different activities. These evaluations are among the most important aspects of self-development because they affect our emotional experiences, future behavior, and long-term psychological adjustment.

By age 4, preschoolers have several self-judgments—for example, about learning things in school, making friends, getting along with parents, and treating others kindly (Marsh, Ellis, & Craven,  2002 ). But because they have difficulty distinguishing between their desired and their actual competence, they usually rate their own ability as extremely high and underestimate task difficulty, as when Sammy asserted, despite his many misses, that he was great at beanbag throwing (Harter,  2003  2006 ).

After creating a “camera” and “flash,” this pre-schooler pretends to take pictures. Her high self-esteem contributes greatly to her initiative in mastering many new skills.

High self-esteem contributes greatly to preschoolers’ initiative during a period in which they must master many new skills. By age 3, children whose parents patiently encourage while offering information about how to succeed are enthusiastic and highly motivated. In contrast, children whose parents criticize their worth and performance give up easily when faced with a challenge and express shame and despondency after failing (Kelley, Brownell, & Campbell,  2000 ). Adults can avoid promoting these self-defeating reactions by adjusting their expectations to children’s capacities, scaffolding children’s attempts at difficult tasks (see  Chapter 7  page 234 ), and pointing out effort and improvement in children’s behavior.

image3 Emotional Development

Gains in representation, language, and self-concept support emotional development in early childhood. Between ages 2 and 6, children make strides in emotional abilities that, collectively, researchers refer to as emotional competence (Halberstadt, Denham, & Dunsmore,  2001 ; Saarni et al.,  2006 ). First, preschoolers gain in emotional understanding, becoming better able to talk about feelings and to respond appropriately to others’ emotional signals. Second, they become better at emotional self-regulation—in particular, at coping with intense negative emotion. Finally, preschoolers more often experience self-conscious emotions and empathy, which contribute to their developing sense of morality.

Parenting strongly influences preschoolers’ emotional competence. Emotional competence, in turn, is vital for successful peer relationships and overall mental health.

Understanding Emotion

Early in the preschool years, children refer to causes, consequences, and behavioral signs of emotion, and over time their understanding becomes more accurate and complex (Stein & Levine,  1999 ). By age 4 to 5, children correctly judge the causes of many basic emotions (“He’s happy because he’s swinging very high”; “He’s sad because he misses his mother”). Preschoolers’ explanations tend to emphasize external factors over internal states, a balance that changes with age (Levine,  1995 ). After age 4, children appreciate that both desires and beliefs motivate behavior ( Chapter 7 ). Then their grasp of how internal factors can trigger emotion expands.

Preschoolers can also predict what a playmate expressing a certain emotion might do next. Four-year-olds know that an angry child might hit someone and that a happy child is more likely to share (Russell,  1990 ). And they realize that thinking and feeling are interconnected—that a person reminded of a previous sad experience is likely to feel sad (Lagattuta, Wellman, & Flavell,  1997 ). Furthermore, they come up with effective ways to relieve others’ negative feelings, such as hugging to reduce sadness (Fabes et al.,  1988 ).

At the same time, preschoolers have difficulty interpreting situations that offer conflicting cues about how a person is feeling. When asked what might be happening in a picture of a happy-faced child with a broken bicycle, 4- and 5-year-olds tended to rely only on the emotional expression: “He’s happy because he likes to ride his bike.” Older children more often reconciled the two cues: “He’s happy because his father promised to help fix his broken bike” (Gnepp,  1983 ; Hoffner & Badzinski,  1989 ). As in their approach to Piagetian tasks, preschoolers focus on the most obvious aspect of an emotional situation to the neglect of other relevant information.

The more parents label emotions, explain them, and express warmth and enthusiasm when conversing with preschoolers, the more “emotion words” children use and the better developed their emotional understanding (Fivush & Haden,  2005 ; Laible & Song,  2006 ). In one study, mothers who explained feelings and who negotiated and compromised during conflicts with their 2½-year-olds had children who, at age 3, were advanced in emotional understanding and used similar strategies to resolve disagreements (Laible & Thompson,  2002 ). Furthermore, 3- to 5-year-olds who are securely attached to their mothers better understand emotion. Attachment security is related to warmer and more elaborative parent–child narratives, including discussions of feelings that highlight the emotional significance of events (Laible,  2004 ; Laible & Song,  2006 ; Raikes & Thompson,  2006 ).

As preschoolers learn about emotion from interacting with adults, they engage in more emotion talk with siblings and friends, especially during make-believe play (Hughes & Dunn,  1998 ). Make-believe, in turn, contributes to emotional understanding, especially when children play with siblings (Youngblade & Dunn,  1995 ). The intense nature of the sibling relationship, combined with frequent acting out of feelings, makes pretending an excellent context for learning about emotions.

Applying What We Know Helping Children Manage Common Fears of Early Childhood

Fear Suggestion
Monsters, ghosts, and darkness Reduce exposure to frightening stories in books and on TV until the child is better able to sort out appearance from reality. Make a thorough “search” of the child’s room for monsters, showing him that none are there. Leave a night-light burning, sit by the child’s bed until he falls asleep, and tuck in a favorite toy for protection.
Preschool or child care If the child resists going to preschool but seems content once there, the fear is probably separation. Provide a sense of warmth and caring while gently encouraging independence. If the child fears being at preschool, find out what is frightening—the teacher, the children, or a crowded, noisy environment. Provide extra support by accompanying the child and gradually lessening the amount of time you are present.
Animals Do not force the child to approach a dog, cat, or other animal that arouses fear. Let the child move at her own pace. Demonstrate how to hold and pet the animal, showing the child that when treated gently, the animal is friendly. If the child is larger than the animal, emphasize this: “You’re so big. That kitty is probably afraid of you!”
Intense fears If a child’s fear is intense, persists for a long time, interferes with daily activities, and cannot be reduced in any of the ways just suggested, it has reached the level of a phobia. Sometimes phobias are linked to family problems, and counseling is needed to reduce them. At other times, phobias diminish without treatment as the child’s capacity for emotional self-regulation improves.

As early as 3 to 5 years of age, knowledge about emotions is related to children’s friendly, considerate behavior, willingness to make amends after harming another, and constructive responses to disputes with agemates (Dunn, Brown, & Maguire,  1995 ; Garner & Estep,  2001 ; Hughes & Ensor,  2010 ). Also, the more preschoolers refer to feelings when interacting with playmates, the better liked they are by their peers (Fabes et al.,  2001 ). Children seem to recognize that acknowledging others’ emotions and explaining their own enhance the quality of relationships.

Emotional Self-Regulation

Language also contributes to preschoolers’ improved emotional self-regulation (Cole, Armstrong, & Pemberton,  2010 ). By age 3 to 4, children verbalize a variety of strategies for adjusting their emotional arousal to a more comfortable level. For example, they know they can blunt emotions by restricting sensory input (covering their eyes or ears to block out an unpleasant sight or sound), talking to themselves (“Mommy said she’ll be back soon”), or changing their goals (deciding that they don’t want to play anyway after being excluded from a game) (Thompson & Goodvin,  2007 ). As children use these strategies, emotional outbursts decline. Effortful control—in particular, inhibiting impulses and shifting attention—also continues to be vital in managing emotion during early childhood. Three-year-olds who can distract themselves when frustrated tend to become cooperative school-age children with few problem behaviors (Gilliom et al.,  2002 ).

Warm, patient parents who use verbal guidance, including suggesting and explaining strategies and prompting children to generate their own, strengthen children’s capacity to handle stress (Colman et al.,  2006 ; Morris et al.,  2011 ). In contrast, when parents rarely express positive emotion, dismiss children’s feelings as unimportant, and have difficulty controlling their own anger, children have continuing problems in managing emotion (Hill et al.,  2006 ; Katz & Windecker-Nelson,  2004 ; Thompson & Meyer,  2007 ).

As with infants and toddlers, preschoolers who experience negative emotion intensely find it harder to shift attention away from disturbing events and inhibit their feelings. They are more likely to be anxious and fearful, respond with irritation to others’ distress, react angrily or aggressively when frustrated, and get along poorly with teachers and peers (Chang et al.,  2003 ; Eisenberg et al.,  2005 ; Raikes et al.,  2007 ). Because these emotionally reactive children become increasingly difficult to rear, they are often targets of ineffective parenting, which compounds their poor self-regulation.

Adult–child conversations that prepare children for difficult experiences also foster emotional self-regulation (Thompson & Goodman,  2010 ). Parents who discuss what to expect and ways to handle anxiety offer strategies that children can apply. Nevertheless, preschoolers’ vivid imaginations and incomplete grasp of the distinction between appearance and reality make fears common in early childhood. See Applying What We Know above for ways adults can help young children manage fears.

Self-Conscious Emotions

One morning in Leslie’s classroom, a group of children crowded around for a bread-baking activity. Leslie asked them to wait patiently while she got a baking pan. But Sammy reached over to feel the dough, and the bowl tumbled off the table. When Leslie returned, Sammy looked at her, then covered his eyes with his hands and said, “I did something bad.” He felt ashamed and guilty.

As their self-concepts develop, preschoolers become increasingly sensitive to praise and blame or to the possibility of such feedback. They more often experience self-conscious emotions—feelings that involve injury to or enhancement of their sense of self (see  Chapter 6 ). By age 3, self-conscious emotions are clearly linked to self-evaluation (Lewis,  1995 ; Thompson, Meyer, & McGinley,  2006 ). But because preschoolers are still developing standards of excellence and conduct, they depend on the messages of parents, teachers, and others who matter to them to know when to feel proud, ashamed, or guilty, often viewing adult expectations as obligatory rules (“Dad said you’re ’posed to take turns”) (Thompson, Meyer, & McGinley,  2006 ).

When parents repeatedly comment on the worth of the child and her performance (“That’s a bad job! I thought you were a good girl!”), children experience self-conscious emotions intensely—more shame after failure, more pride after success. In contrast, parents who focus on how to improve performance (“You did it this way; now try doing it that way”) induce moderate, more adaptive levels of shame and pride and greater persistence on difficult tasks (Kelley, Brownell, & Campbell,  2000 ; Lewis,  1998 ).

Among Western children, intense shame is associated with feelings of personal inadequacy (“I’m stupid”; “I’m a terrible person”) and with maladjustment—withdrawal and depression as well as intense anger and aggression toward those who participated in the shame-evoking situation (Lindsay-Hartz, de Rivera, & Mascolo,  1995 ; Mills,  2005 ). In contrast, guilt—when it occurs in appropriate circumstances and is neither excessive nor accompanied by shame—is related to good adjustment. Guilt helps children resist harmful impulses, and it motivates a misbehaving child to repair the damage and behave more considerately (Mascolo & Fischer,  2007 ; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek,  2007 ). But overwhelming guilt—involving such high emotional distress that the child cannot make amends—is linked to depressive symptoms as early as age 3 (Luby et al.,  2009 ).

Finally, the consequences of shame for children’s adjustment may vary across cultures. As illustrated in the  Cultural Influences  box on  page 267  and on  page 189  in  Chapter 6 , people in Asian collectivist societies, who define themselves in relation to their social group, view shame as an adaptive reminder of an interdependent self and of the importance of others’ judgments (Bedford,  2004 ).

Empathy and Sympathy

Another emotional capacity that becomes more common in early childhood is empathy, which serves as an important motivator of  prosocial , or  altruistic, behavior —actions that benefit another person without any expected reward for the self (Spinrad & Eisenberg,  2009 ). Compared with toddlers, preschoolers rely more on words to communicate empathic feelings, a change that indicates a more reflective level of empathy. When a 4-year-old received a Christmas gift that she hadn’t included on her list for Santa, she assumed it belonged to another little girl and pleaded with her parents, “We’ve got to give it back—Santa’s made a big mistake. I think the girl’s crying ‘cause she didn’t get her present!”

As children’s language skills and capacity to take the perspective of others improve, empathy also increases, motivating prosocial, or altruistic, behavior.

Yet in some children, empathizing—feeling with an upset adult or peer and responding emotionally in a similar way—does not yield acts of kindness and helpfulness but, instead, escalates into personal distress. In trying to reduce these feelings, the child focuses on his own anxiety rather than the person in need. As a result, empathy does not lead to  sympathy —feelings of concern or sorrow for another’s plight.

Temperament plays a role in whether empathy occurs and whether it prompts sympathetic, prosocial behavior or self-focused personal distress. Children who are sociable, assertive, and good at regulating emotion are more likely to empathize with others’ distress, display sympathetic concern, and engage in prosocial behavior, helping, sharing, and comforting others in distress (Bengtsson,  2005 ; Eisenberg et al.,  1998 ; Valiente et al.,  2004 ). In contrast, when poor emotion regulators are faced with someone in need, they react with facial and physiological indicators of distress—frowning, lip biting, a rise in heart rate, and a sharp increase in EEG brain-wave activity in the right cerebral hemisphere (which houses negative emotion)—indications that they are overwhelmed by their feelings (Jones, Field, & Davalos,  2000 ; Pickens, Field, & Nawrocki,  2001 ).

As with other aspects of emotional development, parenting affects empathy and sympathy. When parents are warm, encourage emotional expressiveness, and show sensitive, empathic concern for their preschoolers’ feelings, children are likely to react in a concerned way to the distress of others—relationships that persist into adolescence and early adulthood (Koestner, Franz, & Weinberger,  1990 ; Michalik et al.,  2007 ; Strayer & Roberts,  2004 ). Besides modeling sympathy, parents can help shy children manage excessive anxiety and aggressive children regulate intense anger. They can also teach children the importance of kindness and can intervene when they display inappropriate emotion—strategies that predict high levels of sympathetic responding (Eisenberg,  2003 ).

In contrast, punitive parenting disrupts empathy at an early age (Valiente et al.,  2004 ). In one study, physically abused preschoolers at a child-care center rarely expressed concern at a peer’s unhappiness but, rather, reacted with fear, anger, and physical attacks (Klimes-Dougan & Kistner,  1990 ). The children’s behavior resembled their parents’ insensitive responses to others’ suffering.

image4 Peer Relations

As children become increasingly self-aware and better at communicating and understanding others’ thoughts and feelings, their skill at interacting with peers improves rapidly. Peers provide young children with learning experiences they can get in no other way. Because peers interact on an equal footing, children must keep a conversation going, cooperate, and set goals in play. With peers, children form friendships—special relationships marked by attachment and common interests. Let’s look at how peer interaction changes over the preschool years.

Advances in Peer Sociability

Mildred Parten ( 1932 ), one of the first to study peer sociability among 2- to 5-year-olds, noticed a dramatic rise with age in joint, interactive play. She concluded that social development proceeds in a three-step sequence. It begins with  nonsocial activity —unoccupied, onlooker behavior and solitary play. Then it shifts to  parallel play , in which a child plays near other children with similar materials but does not try to influence their behavior. At the highest level are two forms of true social interaction. In  associative play , children engage in separate activities but exchange toys and comment on one another’s behavior. Finally, in  cooperative play , a more advanced type of interaction, children orient toward a common goal, such as acting out a make-believe theme.

Follow-Up Research on Peer Sociability.

Longitudinal evidence indicates that these play forms emerge in the order suggested by Parten but that later-appearing ones do not replace earlier ones in a developmental sequence (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker,  2006 ). Rather, all types coexist in early childhood.

TAKE A MOMENT … Watch children move from one type of play to another in a play group or preschool classroom, and you will see that they often transition from onlooker to parallel to cooperative play and back again (Robinson et al.,  2003 ). Preschoolers seem to use parallel play as a way station—a respite from the demands of complex social interaction and a crossroad to new activities. And although nonsocial activity declines with age, it is still the most frequent form among 3- to 4-year-olds and accounts for a third of kindergartners’ free-play time. Also, both solitary and parallel play remain fairly stable from 3 to 6 years, accounting for as much of the child’s play as cooperative interaction (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg,  1983 ).

We now understand that the type, not the amount, of solitary and parallel play changes in early childhood. In studies of preschoolers’ play in Taiwan and the United States, researchers rated the cognitive maturity of nonsocial, parallel, and cooperative play, using the categories shown in  Table 8.1  on  page 262 . Within each play type, older children displayed more cognitively mature behavior than younger children (Pan,  1994 ; Rubin, Watson, & Jambor,  1978 ).

Often parents wonder whether a preschooler who spends much time playing alone is developing normally. But only certain types of nonsocial activity—aimless wandering, hovering near peers, and functional play involving repetitive motor action—are cause for concern. Children who watch peers without playing are usually temperamentally inhibited—high in social fearfulness (Coplan et al.,  2004 ; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker,  2006 ). And preschoolers who engage in solitary, repetitive behavior (banging blocks, making a doll jump up and down) tend to be immature, impulsive children who find it difficult to regulate anger and aggression (Coplan et al.,  2001 ). In the classroom, both reticent and impulsive children tend to experience peer ostracism (Coplan & Arbeau,  2008 ).

These 4-year-olds (left) engage in parallel play. Cooperative play (right) develops later than parallel play, but preschool children continue to move back and forth between the two types of sociability, using parallel play as a respite from the complex demands of cooperation.

TABLE 8.1 Developmental Sequence of Cognitive Play Categories

Functional play Simple, repetitive motor movements with or without objects, especially common during the first two years Running around a room, rolling a car back and forth, kneading clay with no intent to make something
Constructive play Creating or constructing something, especially common between 3 and 6 years Making a house out of toy blocks, drawing a picture, putting together a puzzle
Make-believe play Acting out everyday and imaginary roles, especially common between 2 and 6 years Playing house, school, or police officer; acting out storybook or television characters

Source: Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983.

But most preschoolers with low rates of peer interaction simply like to play alone, and their solitary activities are positive and constructive. Children who prefer solitary play with art materials, puzzles, and building toys are typically well-adjusted youngsters who, when they do play with peers, show socially skilled behavior (Coplan & Armer,  2007 ). Still, a few preschoolers who engage in such age-appropriate solitary play—again, more often boys—are rebuffed by peers. Perhaps because quiet play is inconsistent with the “masculine” gender role, boys who engage in it are at risk for negative reactions from both parents and peers and, eventually, for adjustment problems (Coplan et al.,  2001  2004 ).

Cultural Variations.

Peer sociability in collectivist societies, which stress group harmony, takes different forms than in individualistic cultures (Chen & French,  2008 ). For example, children in India generally play in large groups, which require high levels of cooperation. Much of their behavior is imitative, occurs in unison, and involves close physical contact. In a game called Bhatto Bhatto, children act out a script about a trip to the market, touching one another’s elbows and hands as they pretend to cut and share a tasty vegetable (Roopnarine et al.,  1994 ).

Agta village children in the Philippines play a tug-of-war game. Large-group, highly cooperative play is typical of peer sociability in collectivist societies.

As another example, Chinese preschoolers—unlike American preschoolers, who tend to reject reticent classmates—are typically willing to include a quiet, reserved child in play (Chen et al.,  2006 ). In  Chapter 6 , we saw that until recently collectivist values, which discourage self-assertion, led to positive evaluations of shyness in China (see  pages 194  195 ). Apparently, this benevolent attitude persists in the play behaviors of Chinese young children.

Cultural beliefs about the importance of play also affect early peer associations. Caregivers who view play as mere entertainment are less likely to provide props or to encourage pretend than those who value its cognitive and social benefits (Farver & Wimbarti,  1995 ). Preschoolers of Korean-American parents, who emphasize task persistence as vital for learning, spend less time than Caucasian-American children in joint make-believe and more time unoccupied and in parallel play (Farver, Kim, & Lee,  1995 ).

Recall the description of children’s daily lives in a Mayan village culture on  page 236  in  Chapter 7 . Mayan parents do not promote children’s play—yet Mayan children are socially competent (Gaskins,  2000 ). Perhaps Western-style sociodramatic play, with its elaborate materials and wide-ranging themes, is particularly important for social development in societies where the worlds of children and adults are distinct. It may be less crucial in village cultures where children participate in adult activities from an early age.

First Friendships

As preschoolers interact, first friendships form that serve as important contexts for emotional and social development. To adults, friendship is a mutual relationship involving companionship, sharing, understanding of thoughts and feelings, and caring for and comforting each other in times of need. In addition, mature friendships endure over time and survive occasional conflicts.

Preschoolers understand something about the uniqueness of friendship. They say that a friend is someone “who likes you,” with whom you spend a lot of time playing, and with whom you share toys. But friendship does not yet have a long-term, enduring quality based on mutual trust (Damon,  1988a ; Hartup,  2006 ). “Mark’s my best friend,” Sammy would declare on days when the boys got along well. But when a dispute arose, he would reverse himself: “Mark, you’re not my friend!”

Nevertheless, interactions between young friends are unique. Preschoolers give far more reinforcement—greetings, praise, and compliance—to children they identify as friends, and they also receive more from them. Friends are more cooperative and emotionally expressive—talking, laughing, and looking at each other more often than nonfriends do (Hartup,  2006 ; Vaughn et al.,  2001 ). Furthermore, children who begin kindergarten with friends in their class or readily make new friends adjust to school more favorably (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs,  1999 ; Ladd & Price,  1987 ). Perhaps the company of friends serves as a secure base from which to develop new relationships, enhancing children’s feelings of comfort in the new classroom.

Peer Relations and School Readiness

The ease with which kindergartners make new friends and are accepted by their classmates predicts cooperative participation in classroom activities and self-directed completion of learning tasks—behaviors linked to gains in achievement (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs,  1999 ; Ladd, Buhs, & Seid,  2000 ). The capacity to form friendships enables kindergartners to integrate themselves into classroom environments in ways that foster both academic and social competence. In a longitudinal follow-up of a large sample of 4-year-olds, children of average intelligence but with above-average social skills fared better in academic achievement in first grade than children of equal mental ability who were socially below average (Konold & Pianta,  2005 ).

Because social maturity in early childhood contributes to later academic performance, a growing number of experts propose that kindergarten readiness be assessed in terms of not just academic skills but also social skills (Ladd, Herald, & Kochel,  2006 ; Thompson & Raikes,  2007 ). Preschool programs, too, should attend to these vital social prerequisites. Warm, responsive teacher–child interaction is vital, especially for shy, impulsive, and emotionally negative children, who are at risk for social difficulties. In studies involving several thousand 4-year-olds in public preschools in six states, teacher sensitivity and emotional support were strong predictors of children’s social competence, both during preschool and after kindergarten entry (Curby et al.,  2009 ; Mashburn et al.,  2008 ).

Parental Influences on Early Peer Relations

Children first acquire skills for interacting with peers within the family. Parents influence children’s peer sociability both directly, through attempts to influence children’s peer relations, and indirectly, through their child-rearing practices and play behaviors (Ladd & Pettit,  2002 ; Rubin et al.,  2005 ).

Direct Parental Influences.

Preschoolers whose parents frequently arrange informal peer play activities tend to have larger peer networks and to be more socially skilled (Ladd, LeSieur, & Profilet,  1993 ). In providing play opportunities, parents show children how to initiate peer contacts. And parents’ skillful suggestions for managing conflict, discouraging teasing, and entering a play group are associated with preschoolers’ social competence and peer acceptance (Mize & Pettit,  2010 ; Parke et al.,  2004b ).

Parents’ play with children, especially same-sex children, contributes to social competence. By playing with his father as he would with a peer, this child acquires social skills that facilitate peer interaction.

Indirect Parental Influences.

Many parenting behaviors not directly aimed at promoting peer sociability nevertheless influence it. For example, secure attachments to parents are linked to more responsive, harmonious peer interaction, larger peer networks, and warmer, more supportive friendships during the preschool and school years (Laible,  2007 ; Lucas-Thompson & Clarke-Stewart,  2007 ; Wood, Emmerson, & Cowan,  2004 ). The sensitive, emotionally expressive communication that contributes to attachment security may be responsible.

Parent–child play seems particularly effective for promoting peer interaction skills. During play, parents interact with their child on a “level playing field,” much as peers do. And perhaps because parents play more with children of their own sex, mothers’ play is more strongly linked to daughters’ competence, fathers’ play to sons’ competence (Lindsey & Mize,  2000 ; Pettit et al.,  1998 ).

As we have seen, some preschoolers already have great difficulty with peer relations. In Leslie’s classroom, Robbie was one of them. Wherever he happened to be, comments like “Robbie ruined our block tower” and “Robbie hit me for no reason” could be heard. As we take up moral development in the next section, you will learn more about how parenting contributed to Robbie’s peer problems.


REVIEW Among children who spend much time playing alone, what factors distinguish those who are likely to have adjustment difficulties from those who are well-adjusted and socially skilled?

CONNECT How does emotional self-regulation affect the development of empathy and sympathy? Why are these emotional capacities vital for positive peer relations?

APPLY Three-year-old Ben lives in the country, with no other preschoolers nearby. His parents wonder whether it is worth driving Ben into town once a week to participate in a peer play group. What advice would you give Ben’s parents, and why?

REFLECT What did your parents do, directly and indirectly, that might have influenced your earliest peer relationships?

image5 Foundations of Morality

Children’s conversations and behavior provide many examples of their developing moral sense. By age 2, they use words to evaluate behavior as “good” or “bad” and react with distress to aggressive or potentially harmful behaviors (Kochanska, Casey, & Fukumoto,  1995 ). And we have seen that children of this age share toys, help others, and cooperate in games—early indicators of considerate, responsible prosocial attitudes.

Adults everywhere take note of this budding capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Some cultures have special terms for it. The Utku Indians of Hudson Bay say the child develops ihuma (reason). The Fijians believe that vakayalo (sense) appears. In response, parents hold children more responsible for their behavior (Dunn,  2005 ). By the end of early childhood, children can state many moral rules: “Don’t take someone’s things without asking!” “Tell the truth!” In addition, they argue over matters of justice: “You sat there last time, so it’s my turn.” “It’s not fair. He got more!”

All theories of moral development recognize that conscience begins to take shape in early childhood. And most agree that at first, the child’s morality is externally controlled by adults. Gradually, it becomes regulated by inner standards. Truly moral individuals do not do the right thing just to conform to others’ expectations. Rather, they have developed compassionate concerns and principles of good conduct, which they follow in many situations.

Each major theory emphasizes a different aspect of morality. Psychoanalytic theory stresses the emotional side of conscience development—in particular, identification and guilt as motivators of good conduct. Social Learning theory focuses on how moral behavior is learned through reinforcement and modeling. Finally, the cognitive-developmental perspective emphasizes thinking—children’s ability to reason about justice and fairness.

The Psychoanalytic Perspective

Recall that according to Freud, young children form a superego, or conscience, by identifying with the same-sex parent, whose moral standards they adopt. Children obey the superego to avoid guilt, a painful emotion that arises each time they are tempted to misbehave. Moral development, Freud believed, is largely complete by 5 to 6 years of age.

Today, most researchers disagree with Freud’s view of conscience development. In his theory (see  page 256 ), fear of punishment and loss of parental love motivate conscience formation and moral behavior. Yet children whose parents frequently use threats, commands, or physical force tend to violate standards often and feel little guilt, whereas parental warmth and responsiveness predict greater guilt following transgressions (Kochanska et al.,  2002  2005  2008 ). And if a parent withdraws love after misbehavior—for example, refuses to speak to or states a dislike for the child—children often respond with high levels of self-blame, thinking “I’m no good,” or “Nobody loves me.” Eventually, to protect themselves from overwhelming guilt, these children may deny the emotion and, as a result, also develop a weak conscience (Kochanska,  1991 ; Zahn-Waxler et al.,  1990 ).

Inductive Discipline.

In contrast, conscience formation is promoted by a type of discipline called  induction , in which an adult helps the child notice feelings by pointing out the effects of the child’s misbehavior on others. For example, a parent might say, “She’s crying because you won’t give back her doll” (Hoffman,  2000 ). When generally warm parents provide explanations that match the child’s capacity to understand, while firmly insisting that the child listen and comply, induction is effective as early as age 2. Preschoolers whose parents use it are more likely to refrain from wrongdoing, confess and repair damage after misdeeds, and display prosocial behavior (Kerr et al.,  2004 ; Volling, Mahoney, & Rauer,  2009 ; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King,  1979 ).

A teacher uses inductive discipline to explain to a child the impact of her transgression on others, pointing out classmates’ feelings. Induction encourages empathy, sympathy, and commitment to moral standards.

The success of induction may lie in its power to motivate children’s active commitment to moral standards. Induction gives children information about how to behave that they can use in future situations. By emphasizing the impact of the child’s actions on others, it encourages empathy and sympathy (Krevans & Gibbs,  1996 ). And giving children reasons for changing their behavior encourages them to adopt moral standards because they make sense.

In contrast, discipline that relies too heavily on threats of punishment or withdrawal of love makes children so anxious and frightened that they cannot think clearly enough to figure out what they should do. As a result, these practices do not get children to internalize moral rules (Eisenberg, Fabes, & Spinrad,  2006 ).

The Child’s Contribution.

Although good discipline is crucial, children’s characteristics also affect the success of parenting techniques. Twin studies suggest a modest genetic contribution to empathy (Knafo et al.,  2009 ). More empathic children require less power assertion and are more responsive to induction.

Temperament is also influential. Mild, patient tactics—requests, suggestions, and explanations—are sufficient to prompt guilt reactions in anxious, fearful preschoolers (Kochanska et al.,  2002 ). But with fearless, impulsive children, gentle discipline has little impact. Power assertion also works poorly. It undermines the child’s capacity for effortful control, which strongly predicts good conduct, empathy, sympathy, and prosocial behavior (Kochanska & Aksan,  2006 ; Kochanska & Knaack,  2003 ). Parents of impulsive children can foster conscience development by ensuring a secure attachment relationship and combining firm correction with induction (Kochanska, Aksan, & Joy,  2007 ). When children are so low in anxiety that parental disapproval causes them little discomfort, a close parent–child bond motivates them to listen to parents as a means of preserving an affectionate, supportive relationship.

The Role of Guilt.

Although little support exists for Freudian ideas about conscience development, Freud was correct that guilt is an important motivator of moral action. Inducing empathy-based guilt (expressions of personal responsibility and regret, such as “I’m sorry I hurt him”) by explaining that the child is harming someone and has disappointed the parent is a means of influencing children without using coercion. Empathy-based guilt reactions are associated with stopping harmful actions, repairing damage caused by misdeeds, and engaging in future prosocial behavior (Baumeister,  1998 ; Eisenberg, Eggum, & Edwards,  2010 ). At the same time, parents must help children deal with guilt feelings constructively—by guiding them to make up for immoral behavior rather than minimizing or excusing it.

But contrary to what Freud believed, guilt is not the only force that compels us to act morally. Nor is moral development complete by the end of early childhood. Rather, it is a gradual process, extending into adulthood.

Social learning theory

According to social learning theory, morality does not have a unique course of development. Rather, moral behavior is acquired just like any other set of responses: through reinforcement and modeling.

Importance of Modeling.

Operant conditioning—reinforcement for good behavior with approval, affection, and other rewards—is not enough for children to acquire moral responses. For a behavior to be reinforced, it must first occur spontaneously. Yet many prosocial acts, such as sharing, helping, or comforting an unhappy playmate, occur so rarely at first that reinforcement cannot explain their rapid development in early childhood. Rather, social learning theorists believe that children learn to behave morally largely through modeling—observing and imitating people who demonstrate appropriate behavior (Bandura,  1977 ; Grusec,  1988 ). Once children acquire a moral response, reinforcement in the form of praise increases its frequency (Mills & Grusec,  1989 ).

Many studies show that having helpful or generous models increases young children’s prosocial responses. And certain characteristics of models affect children’s willingness to imitate:

· ● Warmth and responsiveness. Preschoolers are more likely to copy the prosocial actions of a warm, responsive adult than those of a cold, distant adult (Yarrow, Scott, & Waxler,  1973 ). Warmth seems to make children more attentive and receptive to the model and is itself an example of a prosocial response.

· ● Competence and power. Children admire and therefore tend to imitate competent, powerful models—especially older peers and adults (Bandura,  1977 ).

· ● Consistency between assertions and behavior. When models say one thing and do another—for example, announce that “it’s important to help others” but rarely engage in helpful acts—children generally choose the most lenient standard of behavior that adults demonstrate (Mischel & Liebert,  1966 ).

Models are most influential in the early years. In one study, toddlers’ eager, willing imitation of their mothers’ behavior predicted moral conduct (not cheating in a game) and guilt following transgressions at age 3 (Forman, Aksan, & Kochanska,  2004 ). At the end of early childhood, children who have had consistent exposure to caring adults have internalized prosocial rules and follow them whether or not a model is present (Mussen & Eisenberg-Berg,  1977 ).

Effects of Punishment.

Many parents know that yelling at, slapping, and spanking children for misbehavior are ineffective disciplinary tactics. A sharp reprimand or physical force to restrain or move a child is justified when immediate obedience is necessary—for example, when a 3-year-old is about to run into the street. In fact, parents are most likely to use forceful methods under these conditions. But to foster long-term goals, such as acting kindly toward others, they tend to rely on warmth and reasoning (Kuczynski,  1984 ). And in response to very serious transgressions, such as lying and stealing, they often combine power assertion with reasoning (Grusec,  2006 ; Grusec & Goodnow,  1994 ).

Frequent punishment, however, promotes only immediate compliance, not lasting changes in behavior. For example, Robbie’s parents often punished by hitting, criticizing, and shouting at him. But as soon as they were out of sight, Robbie usually engaged in the unacceptable behavior again. The more harsh threats, angry physical control, and physical punishment children experience, the more likely they are to develop serious, lasting mental health problems. These include weak internalization of moral rules; depression, aggression, antisocial behavior, and poor academic performance in childhood and adolescence; and depression, alcohol abuse, criminality, and partner and child abuse in adulthood (Afifi et al.,  2006 ; Bender et al.,  2007 ; Gershoff,  2002a ; Kochanska, Aksan, & Nichols,  2003 ; Lynch et al.,  2006 ).

· Repeated harsh punishment has wide-ranging, undesirable side effects:

· ● Parents often spank in response to children’s aggression (Holden, Coleman, & Schmidt,  1995 ). Yet the punishment itself models aggression!

· ● Harshly treated children develop a chronic sense of being personally threatened, which prompts a focus on their own distress rather than a sympathetic orientation to others’ needs.

· ● Children who are frequently punished learn to avoid the punishing adult, who, as a result, has little opportunity to teach desirable behaviors.

· ● By stopping children’s misbehavior temporarily, harsh punishment gives adults immediate relief. For this reason, a punitive adult is likely to punish with greater frequency over time, a course of action that can spiral into serious abuse.

· ● Children, adolescents, and adults whose parents used corporal punishment—the use of physical force to inflict pain but not injury—are more accepting of such discipline (Deater-Deckard et al.,  2003 ; Vitrup & Holden,  2010 ). In this way, use of physical punishment may transfer to the next generation.

Although corporal punishment spans the SES spectrum, its frequency and harshness are elevated among less educated, economically disadvantaged parents (Lansford et al.,  2004  2009 ). And consistently, parents with conflict-ridden marriages and with mental health problems (who are emotionally reactive, depressed, or aggressive) are more likely to be punitive and also to have hard-to-manage children, whose disobedience evokes more parental harshness (Berlin et al.,  2009 ; Erath et al.,  2006 ; Taylor et al.,  2010 ). These parent–child similarities suggest that heredity contributes to the link between punitive discipline and children’s adjustment difficulties.

But heredity is not a complete explanation. Return to  page 73  in  Chapter 2  to review findings indicating that good parenting can shield children who are genetically at risk for aggression and antisocial activity from developing those behaviors. Furthermore, longitudinal studies reveal that parental harshness and corporal punishment predict child and adolescent emotional and behavior problems, even after child, parenting, and family characteristics that might otherwise account for the relationship were controlled (Berlin et al.,  2009 ; Lansford et al.,  2009 , 2011; Taylor et al.,  2010 ).

FIGURE 8.1 Prevalence of corporal punishment by children’s age.

Estimates are based on the percentage of parents in a nationally representative U.S. sample of nearly 1,000 reporting one or more instances of spanking, slapping, pinching, shaking, or hitting with a hard object in the past year. Physical punishment increases sharply during early childhood and then declines, but it is high at all ages.

(From M. A. Straus & J. H. Stewart, 1999, “Corporal Punishment by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, Severity, and Duration, in Relation to Child and Family Characteristics,” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2, p. 59. Adapted with kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media and Murray A. Straus.)

In view of these findings, the widespread use of corporal punishment by American parents is cause for concern. Surveys of nationally representative samples of U.S. families reveal that although corporal punishment increases from infancy to age 5 and then declines, it is high at all ages (see  Figure 8.1 ) (Gershoff et al.,  2012 ; Straus & Stewart,  1999 ). Repeated use of physical punishment is more common with toddlers and preschoolers. And more than one-fourth of physically punishing parents report having used a hard object, such as a brush or a belt (Gershoff,  2002b ).

A prevailing American belief is that corporal punishment, if implemented by caring parents, is harmless, perhaps even beneficial. But as the  Cultural Influences  box on the following page reveals, this assumption is valid only under conditions of limited use in certain social contexts.

Alternatives to Harsh Punishment.

Alternatives to criticism, slaps, and spankings can reduce the side effects of punishment. A technique called  time out  involves removing children from the immediate setting—for example, by sending them to their rooms—until they are ready to act appropriately. When a child is out of control, a few minutes in time out can be enough to change behavior while also giving angry parents time to cool off (Morawska & Sanders,  2011 ). Another approach is withdrawal of privileges, such as watching a favorite TV program. Like time out, removing privileges allows parents to avoid using harsh techniques that can easily intensify into violence.

Cultural Influences Ethnic Differences in the Consequences of Physical Punishment

In an African-American community, six elders, who had volunteered to serve as mentors for parents facing child-rearing challenges, met to discuss parenting issues at a social service agency. Their attitudes toward discipline were strikingly different from those of the white social workers who had brought them together. Each elder argued that successful child rearing required appropriate physical tactics. At the same time, they voiced strong disapproval of screaming or cursing at children, calling such out-of-control parental behavior “abusive.” Ruth, the oldest and most respected member of the group, characterized good parenting as a complex combination of warmth, teaching, talking nicely, and disciplining physically. She related how an older neighbor advised her to handle her own children when she was a young parent:

·  She said to me says, don’t scream… you talk to them real nice and sweet and when they do something ugly… she say you get a nice little switch and you won’t have any trouble with them and from that day that’s the way I raised ’em. (Mosby et al.,  1999 , pp. 511–512)

In several studies, corporal punishment predicted externalizing problems similarly among white, black, Hispanic, and Asian children (Gershoff et al.,  2012 ; Pardini, Fite, & Burke,  2008 ). But other investigations point to ethnic variations.

In one, researchers followed several hundred families for 12 years, collecting information from mothers on disciplinary strategies in early and middle childhood and from both mothers and their children on youth problem behaviors in adolescence (Lansford et al.,  2004 ). Even after many child and family characteristics were controlled, the findings were striking: In Caucasian-American families, physical punishment was positively associated with adolescent aggression and antisocial behavior. In African-American families, by contrast, the more mothers had disciplined physically in childhood, the less their teenagers displayed angry, acting-out behavior and got in trouble at school and with the police.

According to the researchers, African-American and Caucasian-American parents tend to mete out physical punishment differently. In black families, such discipline is typically culturally approved and often mild, delivered in a context of parental warmth, and aimed at helping children become responsible adults. White parents, in contrast, consider physical punishment to be wrong, so when they resort to it, they are usually highly agitated and rejecting of the child (Dodge, McLoyd, & Lansford,  2006 ). As a result, many black children may view spanking as a practice carried out with their best interests in mind, whereas white children may regard it as an “act of personal aggression” (Gunnoe & Mariner,  1997 , p. 768).

In support of this view, when several thousand ethnically diverse children were followed from the preschool through the early school years, spanking was associated with a rise in behavior problems if parents were cold and rejecting, but not if they were warm and supportive (McLoyd & Smith,  2002 ). And in another study, spanking predicted depressive symptoms only among African-American children whose mothers disapproved of the practice and, as a result, tended to use it when they were highly angry and frustrated (McLoyd et al.,  2007 ).

In African-American families, discipline often includes mild physical punishment. Because the practice is culturally approved and delivered in a context of parental warmth, children may view it as an effort to encourage maturity, not as an act of aggression.

These findings are not an endorsement of physical punishment. Other forms of discipline, including time out, withdrawal of privileges, and the positive strategies listed on  page 268 , are far more effective. But it is noteworthy that the meaning and impact of physical discipline vary sharply with its intensity level, context of warmth and support, and cultural approval.

· When parents do decide to use punishment, they can increase its effectiveness in three ways:

· ● Consistency. Permitting children to act inappropriately on some occasions but scolding them on others confuses them, and the unacceptable act persists (Acker & O’Leary,  1996 ).

· ● A warm parent–child relationship. Children of involved, caring parents find the interruption in parental affection that accompanies punishment especially unpleasant. They want to regain parental warmth and approval as quickly as possible.

· ● Explanations. Providing reasons for mild punishment helps children relate the misdeed to expectations for future behavior. This approach leads to a far greater reduction in misbehavior than using punishment alone (Larzelere et al.,  1996 ).

Applying What We Know Positive Parenting

Strategy Explanation
Use transgressions as opportunities to teach. When a child engages in harmful or unsafe behavior, intervene firmly, and then use induction, which motivates children to make amends and behave prosocially.
Reduce opportunities for misbehavior. On a long car trip, bring back-seat activities that relieve children’s restlessness. At the supermarket, converse with children and let them help with shopping. As a result, children learn to occupy themselves constructively when options are limited.
Provide reasons for rules. When children appreciate that rules are rational, not arbitrary, they are more likely to strive to follow the rules.
Arrange for children to participate in family routines and duties. By joining with adults in preparing a meal, washing dishes, or raking leaves, children develop a sense of responsible participation in family and community life and acquire many practical skills.
When children are obstinate, try compromising and problem solving. When a child refuses to obey, express understanding of the child’s feelings (“I know it’s not fun to clean up”), suggest a compromise (“You put those away, I’ll take care of these”), and help the child think of ways to avoid the problem in the future. Responding firmly but kindly and respectfully increases the likelihood of willing cooperation.
Encourage mature behavior. Express confidence in children’s capacity to learn and appreciation for effort and cooperation: “You gave that your best!” “Thanks for helping!” Adult encouragement fosters pride and satisfaction in succeeding, thereby inspiring children to improve further.

Sources: Berk, 2001; Grusec, 2006.

Positive Relationships, Positive Parenting.

The most effective forms of discipline encourage good conduct—by building a mutually respectful bond with the child, letting the child know ahead of time how to act, and praising mature behavior. When sensitivity, cooperation, and shared positive emotion are evident in joint activities between parents and preschoolers, children show firmer conscience development—expressing empathy after transgressions, playing fairly in games, and considering others’ welfare (Kochanska et al.,  2005  2008 ). Parent–child closeness leads children to heed parental demands because the child feels a sense of commitment to the relationship.

With parental encouragement, these sisters follow their route on a map during a long car trip. This positive parenting strategy keeps them constructively involved and reduces the likelihood of misbehavior.

See Applying What We Know above for ways to parent positively. Parents who use these strategies focus on long-term social and life skills—cooperation, problem solving, and consideration for others. As a result, they greatly reduce the need for punishment.

The Cognitive-Developmental Perspective

The psychoanalytic and behaviorist approaches to morality focus on how children acquire ready-made standards of good conduct from adults. In contrast, the cognitive-developmental perspective regards children as active thinkers about social rules. As early as the preschool years, children make moral judgments, deciding what is right or wrong on the basis of concepts they construct about justice and fairness (Gibbs,  2010a ; Turiel,  2006 ).

Young children have some well-developed ideas about morality. As long as researchers emphasize people’s intentions, 3-year-olds say that a person with bad intentions—someone who deliberately frightens, embarrasses, or otherwise hurts another—is more deserving of punishment than a well-intentioned person (Helwig, Zelazo, & Wilson,  2001 ; Jones & Thompson,  2001 ). Around age 4, children know that a person who expresses an insincere intention—saying, “I’ll come over and help you rake leaves,” while not intending to do so—is lying (Maas,  2008 ). And 4-year-olds approve of telling the truth and disapprove of lying, even when a lie remains undetected (Bussey,  1992 ).

Furthermore, preschoolers distinguish  moral imperatives , which protect people’s rights and welfare, from two other types of rules and expectations:  social conventions , customs determined solely by consensus, such as table manners and politeness rituals (saying “hello,” “please,” “thank you”); and  matters of personal choice , such as friends, hairstyle, and leisure activities, which do not violate rights and are up to the individual (Killen, Margie, & Sinno,  2006 ; Nucci,  1996 ; Smetana,  2006 ). Interviews with 3- and 4-year-olds reveal that they judge moral violations (stealing an apple) as more wrong than violations of social conventions (eating ice cream with your fingers). And preschoolers’concern with personal choice, conveyed through statements like “I’m gonna wear this shirt,” serves as the springboard for moral concepts of individual rights, which will expand greatly in middle childhood and adolescence (Nucci,  2005 ).

Within the moral domain, however, preschool and young school-age children tend to reason rigidly, making judgments based on salient features and consequences while neglecting other important information. For example, they are more likely than older children to claim that stealing and lying are always wrong, even when a person has a morally sound reason for doing so (Lourenco,  2003 ). Their explanations for why hitting others is wrong, even in the absence of rules against hitting, are simplistic and centered on physical harm: “When you get hit, it hurts, and you start to cry” (Nucci,  2008 ). And their focus on outcomes means that they fail to realize that a promise is still a promise, even if it is unfulfilled (Maas,  2008 ; Maas & Abbeduto,  2001 ).

Still, preschoolers’ ability to distinguish moral imperatives from social conventions is impressive. How do they do so? According to cognitive-developmental theorists, they actively make sense of their experiences (Turiel,  2006 ). They observe that after a moral offense, peers respond with strong negative emotion, describe their own injury or loss, tell another child to stop, or retaliate. And an adult who intervenes is likely to call attention to the victim’s rights and feelings. In contrast, violations of social convention elicit less intense peer reactions. And in these situations, adults usually demand obedience without explanation or point to the importance of keeping order.

Cognition and language support preschoolers’ moral understanding, but social experiences are vital. Disputes with siblings and peers over rights, possessions, and property allow preschoolers to negotiate, compromise, and work out their first ideas about justice and fairness. Children also learn from warm, sensitive parental communication and from observing the way adults handle rule violations to protect the welfare of others (Turiel & Killen,  2010 ). Children who are advanced in moral thinking tend to have parents who adapt their communications about fighting, honesty, and ownership to what their children can understand, tell stories with moral implications, encourage prosocial behavior, and gently stimulate the child to think further, without being hostile or critical (Janssens & Deković,  1997 ; Walker & Taylor,  1991a ).

Preschoolers who verbally and physically assault others, often with little or no provocation, are already delayed in moral reasoning (Helwig & Turiel,  2004 ; Sanderson & Siegal,  1988 ). Without special help, such children show long-term disruptions in moral development, deficits in self-control, and ultimately an antisocial lifestyle.

The Other Side of Morality: Development of Aggression

Beginning in late infancy, all children display aggression at times. As interactions with siblings and peers increase, so do aggressive outbursts. By the second year, aggressive acts with two distinct purposes emerge. Initially, the most common is  proactive  (or instrumental aggression , in which children act to fulfill a need or desire—obtain an object, privilege, space, or social reward, such as adult or peer attention—and unemotionally attack a person to achieve their goal. The other type,  reactive  (or hostile aggression , is an angry, defensive response to provocation or a blocked goal and is meant to hurt another person(Dodge, Coie, & Lynam,  2006 ; Little et al.,  2003 ).

Proactive and reactive aggression come in three forms, which are the focus of most research:

· ●  Physical aggression  harms others through physical injury—pushing, hitting, kicking, or punching others or destroying another’s property.

· ●  Verbal aggression  harms others through threats of physical aggression, name-calling, or hostile teasing.

· ●  Relational aggression  damages another’s peer relationships through social exclusion, malicious gossip, or friendship manipulation.

Although verbal aggression is always direct, physical and relational aggression can be either direct or indirect. For example, hitting injures a person directly, whereas destroying property inflicts physical harm indirectly. Similarly, saying, “Do what I say, or I won’t be your friend,” conveys relational aggression directly, while spreading rumors, refusing to talk to a peer, or manipulating friendships by saying behind someone’s back, “Don’t play with her; she’s a nerd,” do so indirectly.

In early childhood, verbal aggression gradually replaces physical aggression (Alink et al.,  2006 ; Tremblay et al.,  1999 ). And proactive aggression declines as preschoolers’ improved capacity to delay gratification enables them to avoid grabbing others’ possessions. But reactive aggression in verbal and relational forms tends to rise over early and middle childhood (Côté et al.,  2007 ; Tremblay,  2000 ). Older children are better able to recognize malicious intentions and, as a result, more often respond in hostile ways.

By age 17 months, boys are more physically aggressive than girls—a difference found throughout childhood in many cultures (Baillargeon et al.,  2007 ; Card et al.,  2008 ). The sex difference is due in part to biology—in particular, to male sex hormones (androgens) and temperamental traits (activity level, irritability, impulsivity) on which boys exceed girls. Gender-role conformity is also important. As soon as preschoolers are aware of gender stereotypes—that males and females are expected to behave differently—physical aggression drops off more sharply for girls than for boys (Fagot & Leinbach,  1989 ).

These preschoolers display proactive aggression, pushing and grabbing as they argue over a game. As children learn to compromise and share, and as their capacity to delay gratification improves, proactive aggression declines.

Although girls have a reputation for being both more verbally and relationally aggressive than boys, the sex difference is small (Crick et al.,  2004  2006 ; Crick, Ostrov, & Werner,  2006 ). Beginning in the preschool years, girls concentrate most of their aggressive acts in the relational category. Boys inflict harm in more variable ways and, therefore, display overall rates of aggression that are much higher than girls’.

At the same time, girls more often use indirect relational tactics that—in disrupting intimate bonds especially important to girls—can be particularly mean. Whereas physical attacks are usually brief, acts of indirect relational aggression may extend for hours, weeks, or even months (Nelson, Robinson, & Hart,  2005 ; Underwood,  2003 ). In one instance, a 6-year-old girl formed a “pretty-girls club” and—for nearly an entire school year—convinced its members to exclude several classmates by saying they were “ugly and smelly.”

An occasional aggressive exchange between preschoolers is normal. But children who are emotionally negative, impulsive, and disobedient are prone to early, high rates of physical or relational aggression (or both) that often persist, placing them at risk for internalizing and externalizing difficulties, social skills deficits, and antisocial activity in middle childhood and adolescence (Campbell et al.,  2006 ; Côté et al.,  2007 ; Vaillancourt et al.,  2003 ). These negative outcomes, however, depend on child-rearing conditions.

The Family as Training Ground for Aggressive Behavior.

“I can’t control him, he’s impossible,” Robbie’s mother, Nadine, complained to Leslie one day. When Leslie asked if Robbie might be troubled by something happening at home, she discovered that his parents fought constantly and resorted to harsh, inconsistent discipline. The same child-rearing practices that undermine moral internalization—love withdrawal, power assertion, critical remarks, physical punishment, and inconsistent discipline—are linked to aggression from early childhood through adolescence in diverse cultures, with most of these practices predicting both physical and relational forms (Bradford et al.,  2003 ; Casas et al.,  2006 ; Côté et al.,  2007 ; Gershoff et al.,  2010 ; Kuppens et al.,  2009 ; Nelson et al.,  2006a ).

In families like Robbie’s, anger and punitiveness quickly create a conflict-ridden family atmosphere and an “out-of-control” child. The pattern begins with forceful discipline, which occurs more often with stressful life experiences, a parent with an unstable personality, or a difficult child (Dodge, Coie, & Lynam,  2006 ). Typically, the parent threatens, criticizes, and punishes, and the child angrily resists until the parent “gives in.” As these cycles become more frequent, they generate anxiety and irritability among other family members, who soon join in the hostile interactions. Compared with siblings in typical families, preschool siblings who have critical, punitive parents are more aggressive toward one another. Destructive sibling conflict, in turn, quickly spreads to peer relationships, contributing to poor impulse control and antisocial behavior by the early school years (Garcia et al.,  2000 ; Ostrov, Crick, & Stauffacher,  2006 ).

Boys are more likely than girls to be targets of harsh, inconsistent discipline because they are more active and impulsive and therefore harder to control. When children who are extreme in these characteristics are exposed to emotionally negative, inept parenting, their capacity for emotional self-regulation, empathic responding, and guilt after transgressions is disrupted (Eisenberg, Eggum, & Edwards,  2010 ). Consequently, they lash out when disappointed, frustrated, or faced with a sad or fearful victim.

Children subjected to these family processes acquire a distorted view of the social world, often seeing hostile intent where it does not exist and, as a result, making many unprovoked attacks (Lochman & Dodge,  1998 ; Orbio de Castro et al.,  2002 ). And some, who conclude that aggression “works” to access rewards and control others, callously use it to advance their own goals and are unconcerned about causing suffering in others—an aggressive style associated with later more severe conduct problems, violent behavior, and delinquency (Marsee & Frick,  2010 ).

Highly aggressive children tend to be rejected by peers, to fail in school, and (by adolescence) to seek out deviant peer groups that lead them toward violent delinquency and adult criminality. We will consider this life-course path of antisocial activity in  Chapter 12 .

Violent Media and Aggression.

In the United States, 57 percent of TV programs between 6 A.M. and 11 P.M. contain violent scenes, often portraying repeated aggressive acts that go unpunished. Victims of TV violence are rarely shown experiencing serious harm, and few programs condemn violence or depict other ways of solving problems (Center for Communication and Social Policy, 1998). Verbally and relationally aggressive acts are particularly frequent in reality TV shows (Coyne, Robinson, & Nelson,  2010 ). And violent content is 9 percent above average in children’s programming, with cartoons being the most violent.

"Looking for a Similar Assignment? Get Expert Help at an Amazing Discount!"