Monday, December 26, 2011

Beware: Conformity Starts Early!

I just read an interesting research article in the latest issue of the professional journal, Child Development. Because it has lessons for parents, I’m going to digress from talking about signing with babies and share it with you.

We all know how vulnerable teenagers are to peer pressure, but did you know that preschoolers are too? I don’t mean here the tendency for 3- and 4-year-olds to begin mimicking their playmates during play—one child imitating another child who has started to twirl around or act like a monkey. That’s just fun and has no important implications. The conformity at issue here is more insidious and has to do with agreeing publicly with an opinion expressed by others when the truth is that one’s own opinion is very different--in other words, hiding one’s own beliefs because they clash with one’s peers’ beliefs.

It turns out that 4-year-olds are vulnerable to this kind of peer pressure. How did the researchers discover this truth? In a very clever way. They sat groups of 4 children in cubbies arranged so that they couldn’t see each other but could hear each other answer questions posed by the “teacher.” The questions referred to specially designed picture books the children were given. The left page of each 2-page spread in the book showed three drawings of an animal (say a tiger) that were identical except for size. One was big (the “daddy” tiger), one was middle-sized (the “mommy” tiger) and one was small (the “baby” tiger). The right page of each spread showed one of these three versions and the child’s task was to tell the teacher which one it was: the daddy, mommy, or baby. The trick here was the fact that three of the children held copies of the same book while one child (who was always asked last) had a different book designed so the correct answer would clash with what the other children said. What they found was that the children—not always, but about a third of the time—would agree with what the other three kids had said even though they knew that answer to be wrong for their book.

Reading the results of this study brought back a real life example involving my son when he was about 3 ½ and had just started nursery school (see photo above). Up until that point his playmates of convenience happened to always be girls, a fact which bothered him not at all. Then, one day a month or into the school year, I noticed that he had colored every picture in a coloring book save one: a single girl swinging on a swing. “Kai, why didn’t you color this one?” His answer: “Because boys don’t play with girls.” When I next observed the playground at the school, I saw that this was in fact true there—the girls played with girls and the boys with boys. Interestingly, however, when he was at home and not where his male peers could see (and no doubt judge him), Kai continued to play very happily with the same girls he always had.

Why is this significant? It’s bad enough when it’s a gender issue, but substitute not playing with children of contrasting ethnicities and you can see how easily and at what young ages prejudices get started.

So, fellow parents, as we look forward to a new year, what I’m hoping is that “forewarned is forearmed” as the saying goes. In other words, knowing that even preschoolers are vulnerable to peer pressure can motivate you to begin even earlier to help your child understand the importance of thinking for oneself.

Happy New Year (and don't forget to follow us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis

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