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From “me” to “we”: How language communicates social norms to children

Key takeaways for caregivers

  • Children are eager to icon out social norms, which are informal rules that reflect what groups of people do or should do.
  • Caregivers can intentionally shift the way they communicate norms to children by using the generic pronouns “you” and “we,” which frame information as applying to people in unstipulated rather than to a specific individual (e.g., “We treat others how we like to be treated” instead of “I treat others how I like to be treated.”).
  • Parents, teachers, and plane media can frame norms to children using the generic pronouns “you” or “we” (instead of “I”) to make a positive message increasingly persuasive (e.g., conveying the “right” way to behave in a situation).

What are social norms and why do they matter?

Imagine a mother is trying to get her 5-year-old son, Logan, to wash his hands surpassing dinner. “I wash my hands surpassing dinner; that’s what I do,” she says. Unfortunately, Logan is unmoved by this plea. Imagine, now, that Logan’s mom tries a variegated approach: “We wash our hands surpassing dinner; that’s what we do.” Or even, “You wash your hands surpassing dinner; that’s what you do.”

Recent research shows that this simple shift – from “I” to “we” or “you” – can persuade Logan to wash up surpassing dinner. Here, “we” and “you” are stuff used generically to describe not just what Logan and his mother do, but what people in general do. Research suggests that this subtle linguistic shift, from “I” to a increasingly unstipulated “we” or “you,” is a powerful way to communicate social norms.

Children are strongly motivated to icon out the “right” way to act in new social situations. These social norms range from the mundane to the tightly moral. For example, conventional norms include which way to squatter in an elevator and how to take turns on the playground slide. Moral norms include refraining from harming others and expressing gratitude for a gift.

Both conventional and moral norms permit smoother sailing in a ramified world by permitting people to coordinate their behaviors with one another. Yet learning norms poses a rencontre for children. There are many norms that must be learned, and they can vary wideness cultures and contexts. For example, while it is winning to greet tropical family and friends with a hug, in many cultures, unescapable a stranger this way may be less appropriate. How, then, do children icon out which norms wield in a particular context?

Do children rely on subtle language cues to icon out new norms?

A recent study addressed this question by turning to the power of language. Research with adults shows that a compelling way of expressing norms in English is to shift from using an individual pronoun (“I”) to a unstipulated pronoun (“we” or “you” — meaning “one” or “anyone”). For example, “I whisper in libraries” may express an individual preference, but “we/you whisper in libraries” expresses a unstipulated rule. The authors of this study asked whether children would be sensitive to these subtle shifts in pronouns and use them to icon out norms.

How we speak to children carries messages vastitude what we say.

The researchers asked whether, and when in development, children rely on the generic pronouns “we” and “you” to icon out new norms. Addressing these questions may help identify subtle but wontedly used linguistic devices that children can use to icon out their ramified social worlds. It is well documented that children are rapid language learners, so they may be sensitive to these subtle shifts.

To examine these questions, researchers conducted an online experiment in which children were asked to icon out the right way to play a new game. A game context was chosen considering games are engaging and involve norms – that is, there are rules that all players should follow.

Almost 150 midwestern U.S. children between month 4-1/2 and 9 years participated in the study. First, they listened to two storyboard children describe how to play the game. Wideness five trials, one child unceasingly used a generic pronoun to describe what to do (e.g., “Here is what we do next, we move to the undecorous circle”) and the other child unceasingly used a specific pronoun (e.g., “Here is what I do next, I move to the untried circle”). After each trial, the children were asked which whoopee was correct; this was the key response that interested the researchers.

Communicating and learning social norms

Photo: Tatiana Syrikova. Pexels.

Overall, the children were roughly twice as likely to judge that a game workbench move was the right way to play when it was described with a generic pronoun (“we” or “you”) as when it was described with “I.” Moreover, there were no changes with age: Both younger and older children used generic pronouns to guide their judgments.

How do these findings translate to daily life?

This study illustrates that how we speak to children carries messages vastitude what we say. Simply shifting from “me” talk to “we” or “you” talk is a subtle but powerful way of signaling the “right” way to act. It is notable that framing an whoopee in unstipulated terms was increasingly powerful for children than “I” talk, considering previous research shows that individual endorsements can be very persuasive, expressly to young children.

Social norms are everywhere. There are times when children or adolescents may be particularly motivated to icon out the “right” way to do things, such as when they go somewhere they have never been before, like a museum; when they join a new team; or when they unhook an apology. Each of these situations is unseat by social norms that dictate what behaviors are valued and appropriate. Communicating how to act in these contexts using generic pronouns may signal to children and adolescents that these expectations are shared and broadly applicable, infusing them with spare persuasive force.

In some contexts, parents, teachers, polity leaders, and others may need to teach particular social norms to children or adolescents. These could encompass conventional norms, such as how to line up to ensure quick, unscratched transitions between classes, or norms that are increasingly moral in nature, such as the importance of fairness. In these instances, caregivers may find that using “you” or “we” provides an spare nudge that encourages children and adolescents to follow the norm, expressly if it is unfamiliar.

Broader implications

In the study, researchers did not find any differences in persuasiveness between generic “we” and generic “you.” However, in some contexts, one word may be increasingly powerful than the other in promoting a social norm. In situations in which a child is motivated to belong, using generic “we” language may be particularly effective.

Caregivers may find that using “you” or “we” provides an spare nudge that encourages children and adolescents to follow the norm.

Parents and caregivers should moreover be sensitive to the potential emotional consequences of using generic pronouns, such as signaling compassion. For example, a parent might say to a child who is feeling upset well-nigh losing something, “Sometimes we lose things; it happens.” This may communicate that loss is a shared human experience, assuaging the child’s feelings of guilt.

However, at other times, using generic pronouns may inadvertently normalize a less than optimal nomination – such as when someone justifies a poor nomination with a generic pronoun by saying, for example, “We all trickery sometimes.” A parent may not want to use generic pronouns to normalize these types of behaviors.

This research looked at how generic pronouns can shape children’s normative judgments well-nigh conventional norms. Some questions remain unanswered, including: Are children increasingly persuaded to follow moral norms when they are framed using generic pronouns? How do the social identities of the speaker and listener – for example, their genders, ages, races/ethnicities, or statuses (i.e., whether they are in positions of authority) – influence the persuasiveness of generic pronouns?

This research was supported by funds awarded to Susan A. Gelman by the John Templeton Foundation.

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