Raising Well-Socialized Children
It could be argued that the goal of raising children is to produce adults who function well in society. However, a quick look at the evening news or a newspaper tells us that some children turn into productive adults who function well while others, even as children have great difficulty conforming to society’s most minimal standards. Some people even as children act with aggression and hostility; for instance, researchers report in instance of two ten-year-old children recently convicted of murder (Scott, 1998). We know how to raise well-socialized children in theory. The reality, however, is that in addition to whatever innate qualities a child is born with,
As children grow up, they are exposed to a variety of environments. The first environment is within themselves: even as babies, humans possess individual traits. Some are more easy-going, and some more easily irritated. Some disorders that can negatively affect development, such as bipolar disorder, have a strong component. But in addition to the innate characteristics of the individual, a variety of other environments impact development. Family environment is of course crucial. When the child is old enough, he or she will enter the new environment of school. The child will be influenced by friends, outside activities such as music lessons, scouting, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc., and the neighborhood he or she lives in. All these environments will reflect, to a greater or lesser degree, the values of the larger societal environment of which they are a part.
For most children, these influences will be positive. Some children, however, will be raised in physically or psychologically abusive homes. Some will be raised in loving homes but live in a neighborhood where violence is common.
As the child moves through all these sometimes conflicting environment, he or she develops the qualities that result in their socialization. One of the first socialization skills a child acquires is language. Language is the way human beings communicate with each other and is the primary way adults communicate family and community standards to the child. However, children also learn important socialization skills from their family, where they acquire the skills they will use to get along with those close to them; school, where they will master their cultural framework such as history and basic skills in reading, writing and math; and their community, where they will learn the behavioral standards appropriate for the area they live in. Their community may include such things as church attendance, through which they may be given lessons on what is right and moral in addition to what they have learned from family, school and neighborhood. Sometimes those messages will be in conflict with each other. In some communities, especially ethnically-identified ones, community history may be important. Children of recent immigrants will have to be socialized both in their ethnic society and the larger society that includes many different ethnicities. Some cultures will be affected by history as well, for instance, the history and experience of Black Americans with both formal and informal racism.
The most successful adults are likely to be those who either had positive environmental experiences while growing up or who developed resilience in the face of negative experiences that allow them to overcome the negative effects. Unfortunately for some individuals, they are not exposed to environments conducive to good socialization. For instance, Ungar (2004) reports that inadequate parenting skills is the strongest predictor of behavior problems and other mental health problems in children (Ungar, 2004). While some people often quote the Bible to support such strongly punitive interventions as spankings, the research shows that using less harsh punishment results in better adjustment in the child (Ungar, 2004). In fact, parents, youth workers and foster parents can do a lot to mitigate the effects of poverty, social difficulties or academic struggles (Ungar, 2004). In Ungar’s (2004) research, teens at risk for problems stated that they wanted the adults in their lives to be aware of what they were doing both at home and away from home (Ungar, 2004).
The research shows some specific factors that interfere with socialization and create an environment where children can develop aggressive tendencies or other antisocial behavior. Discipline described as over-reactive has been connected to children who develop overt, or externalizing, behavioral problems (Lorber, 2003). In one study, the children mothers who put harshly negative interpretations on neutral behaviors were more likely to act out or otherwise demonstrate poor socialization (Lorber, 2003). Other studies link antisocial behaviors in youth to exposure to violence, either in the home or in the community (Schiff, 2003). Other studies have demonstrated that harsh parenting skills tend to be passed on from generation to generation within families (Conger, 2003) and that these entrenched family behaviors tend to contribute to antisocial, aggressive behavior in the children of those families.
Observation of interactions between adults and children demonstrate that a variety of methods exist to socialize our children. In the supermarket, the writer saw two children reaching for candy. One mother chose to distract the child by having him find the cereal they needed. Another yelled at the child, told him he knows he’s not supposed to touch the candy, and slapped his hand. The first child happily looked among the boxes of cereal for the “Cheerios,” while the other child cried but continued to try to get the candy. Both children were given the message that they cannot eat candy any time they want it, but one has had this communicated in a way that treated him as a competent person able to be of assistance, while the other was told that he’s a bad boy who cannot follow parental rules.
This same difference in patterns was noted at a neighborhood park. It was close to dinnertime, and two different parents told their children it was time to leave. Both children resisted. The first parent engaged the child in conversation about what they would do when they came back to the park the next day while gently leading her away. The other said, “See? This is why I don’t bring you to the park more often. You always make it a problem when it’s time to leave! We won’t be coming back until Saturday now (three days away). It seems reasonable to assume that the second child would learn to try not to leave the park, since she could not be sure when she could come back, while the other child learned that while parents make rules, her feelings and desires are taken into consideration. The first child might well be learning to be more selfish, to watch out for what she wants, because others may not, while the second might well be learning that cooperation with others gets her more of what she wants.
These dynamics can play out in the family as well. As a child, sometimes my parents punished, and sometimes they were more gentle. I did not always do my assigned chores. Sometimes I was sent to my room or lectured about how wrong that was, but one day my mother let it slide. She took the garbage out herself, fed the dog, and put the dishes away, all my jobs. She said she would just use some of her time to do my chores. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then 3PM came. She was supposed to drive me to a friend’s home. She said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t take you until 3:30PM. I have some things I need to finish, and I’m not done with them yet because I took time out to do your chores.” I didn’t always do my chores cheerfully or without protest after that, but I did gradually learn that I was an important member of the family and that what I did or didn’t do affected others as well as myself. When I was punished it was easy for me to rationalize that it was no big deal, but when I saw my mother do them and then go on to her own, I had a new perspective on contributing to family life.
Raising well-socialized children can’t be as simple as using natural consequences such as delaying a visit to a friend, but the research shows that adults such as teachers and youth leaders can soften the negative messages children may receive either from a harsh and uncaring home or from negative influences stemming from neighborhood or peer groups.
Conger, Rand D. 2003. “Angry and aggressive behavior across three generations: a prospective, longitudinal study of parents and children.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, April.
Lorber, Michael F. 2003. “Mothers’ overreactive discipline and their encoding and appraisals of toddler behavior.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Oct.
Schiff, Miriam. 2003. “Urban youth disruptive behavioral difficulties: exploring association with parenting and gender.” Family Process, Winter.
Scott, Stephen. 1998. “Aggressive behavior in childhood.” British Medical Journal, Jan 17.
Ungar, Michael. 2004. “The importance of parents and other caregivers to the resilience of high-risk adolescents.” Family Process, March.
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