Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It starts early

Today I came across a study by Genyue Fu and Kang Lee, nicely titled "Social Grooming in the Kindergarten: The Emergence of Flattery Behavior." (Read an abstract of their paper here, if you like.) In their study, they asked children between ages 3 and 6 to rate drawings by classmates, and both unknown and known adults, including their teachers. Kids ranked drawings both when the artist was present and when absent. Fu and Lee found that the youngest children ranked drawings the same regardless of whether the artist was present or absent, child or adult, known or unknown. Three-year-olds will, in other words, tell you straight up that your drawing is no good no matter who you are. (My own anecdotal evidence supports this finding, for what it's worth.)

By the time children reach age five or six, however, ratings differ dramatically according to whether the artist is present and known. (They tend to flatter children and adults equally, though.) Fu and Lee's four-year-olds proved to be a mixed group — with some inflating ratings when artists were present, some not — and they conclude that age four might be the transitional point where flattery and other "ingratiating behaviors" (as they're known in the literature) begin to emerge. They also point out that children tended to flatter those they know, "suggesting preschoolers' emerging sensitivity to social contexts in which flattery behavior is best deployed" (p. 263). (Interestingly — and unexpectedly, in my opinion — they don't at this point show a tendency to flatter adults over their peers or even their teachers over other adults. I would have thought they'd be good at working us known adults over in particular, given what we can give them if talked to just right.)

This study leapt up at me mainly because we've seen a little emergence of social forces lately with The Boy. His teachers encourage parents to visit class to discuss what they like, and my wife volunteered to give a little presentation about Vietnamese (Lunar) New Year. She's going to bring traditional treats, read books about Tết, and pass out red envelopes hiding little gifts. Q gets to go, too, and my wife asked both Q and The Boy whether they wanted to wear their áo dài, or traditional Vietnamese outfits. Q jumped at the chance, but The Boy hedged despite usually loving to look like a prince in the blue silk. After a little prodding, he explained that his friends at school could look at Q and see what he would look like if he wore his own. However much we flattered him, he wouldn't come around to wearing one with his sister.

This isn't an instance of emerging flattery but rather its opposite. My wife and I believe that he worries about the social impact of looking so different in front of his peers and teachers (note his reference to what his friends would see). With sensitivity to social context — borne out in the emergence of flattery at about his age — comes the constant curse of awkwardness and the threat of ridicule that basically no one ends up avoiding entirely. On a more positive note, I'd like to think that this kind of sensitivity also makes room for children to be, well, sensitive towards others — to consider the feelings of those they interact with and judge. Perhaps that attitude is overly optimistic, but it's a pleasant enough thought to linger on, and I'd like to think I can see the rise of this kind of empathy in him.

In any event, I suppose, here comes junior high.

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