Around age three Children are more likely to go along with what peers say


What makes preschoolers eat their veggies? Raise their hand? Wait their turn?

“Because I say so” is a common refrain for many parents. But when it comes to getting kids to behave, recent research suggests that the voice of adult authority isn’t the only thing that matters. Around age three, fitting in with the group starts to count big too.

That’s the finding of a new study by Duke University researchers showing that, by their third birthday, children are more likely to go along with what others say or do for the sake of following the crowd, rather than acting out of a desire to kowtow to authority or heed that person’s preferences per se.

“Every culture has its do’s and don’ts,” said first author Leon Li, a doctoral student in psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

We’re not born knowing what to say when someone sneezes, the right and wrong time to wear a hat, or that we should eat with a fork and not with our hands.

But most of us begin to pick up on these unwritten social rules when we are very young, and quickly figure out when and how to follow them.

The question, Li said, is what makes young children “behave”? What propels a 3-year-old to use their quiet voice when they’d rather sing and shout? What’s really going on when a person covers their cough and a preschooler follows suit, against their own inclination?

Perhaps children this age are not really trying to conform to the accepted way of doing things, some have suggested, as much as they are trying to show regard for adults by doing what they say. Or the child’s copycat behavior could be rooted in a desire to feel bonded with that person.

To better understand what motivates preschoolers to fall in line, the researchers conducted a study in the lab of professor Michael Tomasello at Duke, where Li and Duke undergraduate Bari Britvan invited 3.5-year-olds to help set up for a pretend tea party.

Each of the 104 children was given a blue sticker to wear at the start of the study, and told that the people with that color sticker were part of the same team.

Next the researchers watched as the children decided among different kinds of teas, snacks, cups and plates for the tea party, first on their own and then after listening to the choices of other team members.

Sometimes the other team member framed their choice as a matter of personal preference. (“For my tea party today, I feel like using this snack.”) Other times they presented it as a norm shared by the whole group: (“For tea parties at Duke, we always use this kind of snack.”)

After listening to the choices of others, most of the time the children stuck with their first choice. In other words, children who initially said they felt like using, say, the donut eventually wound up picking the donut no matter what the other person said they were using.

But 23% of the time the children switched their choice to settle for someone else’s. And when they did, they were more likely to go along with the other person when an option was presented as a group norm rather than a mere personal preference.

The pattern held up even when the other person was another child, not an adult, suggesting that the preschoolers weren’t simply acting out of a desire to imitate adults or obey authority.

Li says the findings lend support to an idea, proposed by Tomasello and colleagues, about how children develop the moral reasoning capacity that sets humans apart from other animals.

When an adult says to an infant or a toddler, “we don’t hit,” the child generally does as she’s told out of deference to that person.

But eventually, by around their third birthday, children start to think in a different way. They begin to understand cues such as “we don’t hit” as something larger, coming from the group, and act out of a sense of connectedness and shared identity.

To understand human growth and development, healthcare professionals need to understand and learn about 2 areas: (1) knowledge of milestone competencies, for example, growth in the motor, cognitive, speech-language, and social-emotional domains and (2) the eco-biological model of development, specifically, the interaction of environment and biology and their influence on development.[1][2]

This article reviews the developmental stages of social-emotional development and also discusses the role of the interprofessional team in identifying the cause of social-emotional problems and therefore, intervene effectively.

Social-emotional development covers 2 important concepts of development including the development of self or temperament and relationship to others or attachment. Clinicians will be able to identify and intervene to resolve social-emotional problems in early childhood if they have a better understanding of these concepts


Temperament is an innate attribute that defines the child’s approach to the world and his interaction with the environment across 9 dimensions which are activity level, distractibility, the intensity of emotions, regularity, sensory threshold, the tendency to approach versus withdrawing, adaptability, persistence, and mood quality.

We can define temperament as the child’s “style” or “personality,” and it is intrinsic to a child. It influences child behavior and interaction with others. Based on the above attributes that define temperament, researchers have categorized young children’s temperament into 3 broad temperamental categories:

Easy or flexible: This category includes children who are friendly and easygoing, comply with routines such as sleep and mealtimes, adapt to changes, and have a calm disposition.

Active or feisty: Children who are fussy, do not follow routines and have irregular feeding and sleeping schedules, are apprehensive of a new environment and new people, have intense reactions, and get easily upset.
Slow to warm up or cautious: Children who may be less engaged or active, have a shy disposition to a new situation and new people, may withdraw or have a negative reaction. They become more comfortable and warm up with repeated exposure to a new environment or person.

This classification is for the ease of discussion, and all temperaments will not fit into one or other categories exactly. Discussion about temperament with parents and caregivers can better identify the child’s strengths and needs. Based on this, caregivers can adapt their management and caregiving styles to match the child’s temperament. This can mold a child’s behavior and facilitate the child’s successful interaction with the environment, defined as “goodness of fit.”[3]


The social-emotional development begins with parental bonding to the child. This bonding allows the mother to respond to the child’s needs timely and soothe their newborn. The consistent availability of the caregiver results in the development of “basic trust” and confidence in the infant for the caregiver during the first year of life. Basic trust is the first psychosocial stage described by Erickson. This allows the infant to seek for parents or the caregiver during times of stress, known as the attachment.[4]

Even before acquiring language, babies learn to communicate through emotions. One may argue that learning emotional regulation and impulse control may determine later success in life more than IQ. There is a rapid growth in social and emotional areas of the brain during the first 18 months of life.

The nonverbal parts of the right brain, including the amygdala and the limbic system, receives, processes and interprets stimulus from the environment that produce an emotional response and build emotional and stress regulatory systems of the body. The lower limbic system, outside the cortex, dictates most of our spontaneous, instinctive emotional responses, like fear resulting in a racing heart or weak knees.

The upper limbic system part of the cerebral cortex, known as the limbic cortex, controls conscious awareness of emotions and refines the responses according to the environmental culture of the individual. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure that lies at the junction of the cortex and subcortical areas of the brain and plays a pivotal role in sensing emotions and connects them both to higher and lower limbic structures.

During the second half of infancy, emotional information from the lower limbic system moves up and becomes part of the babies’ consciousness. Frontal lobe activity increases and myelination of the limbic pathways also begin during this time. With this gain in the limbic system, a caregiver’s soothing and consistent response to the child’s emotions develops into the child’s attachment to the caregiver, usually the mother. Attachment is regarded as a pivotal event in a person’s emotional development. It lays the foundation of a child’s security, harbors self-esteem, and builds emotional regulation and self-control skills.


In healthy children, social-emotional stages develop on an expected trajectory and monitoring these milestones is an imperative part of preventative health supervision visits. The caregiver’s sensitive and available supportive role is imperative to establish attachment and the skill set that follows.

Three distinct emotions are present from birth; anger, joy, and fear, revealed by universal facial expressions. Cognitive input is not required for emotional response at this stage. During the brief periods of alertness in the newborn period, the newborn may return a mother’s gaze. Soon the infant explores her face.

The first measurable social milestone is around one-two months of age, and it is the infant’s social smile in response to parental high pitched vocalizations or smile. She recognizes the caregiver’s smell and voice and responds to gentle touch. Infants can use a distinct facial expression to express emotions in an appropriate context after 2 months of age. In the first 2 to 3 months infant learns to regulate physiologically and need smooth routines. She progressively learns to calm herself, gives a responsive smile and responds to gentle calming.

Sensitive cooperative interaction with the caregiver helps the infant to learn how to manage tension. Around 4 months of age turn-taking conversation (vocalizations) begin. The infant learns to manipulate his environment. He lets his caregiver know taking away his toy upsets him or he is happy when held.

A sensitive but firm response from the caregiver helps infants manage emotional stress. She can recognize the primary caregiver by sight around 5 months of age. In between 6 to 12 months effective attachment relationships establish with a responsive caregiver. Stranger anxiety emerges as an infant distinguishes between the familiar and unfamiliar. The infant becomes mutually engaged in her interactions with the caregiver. The infant seeks caregiver for comfort, help, and play. He shows distress upon separation.

Around 8 months of age, joint attention skills develop. An infant will look in the same direction as the caregiver and follow his gaze. Eventually, he will look back at the caregiver to show that they share the experience.

Between 12 to 18 months, the infant learns to explore his environment by support from a caregiver. By 12 months of age, proto-imperative pointing emerges, in other words, the infant requests by pointing at the object of interest and integrates it with eye contact between the object and the caregiver. Proto-declarative pointing follows at 16 months of age when the child points with eye gaze coordination to show interest. Around 18 months of age, the child brings the object to show or give it to the caregiver.

Around 12 months of age, the child takes part in interactive play like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. He uses gestures to wave bye-bye and communicate his interests and needs. At around 15 months of age empathy and self- conscious emotions emerge. A child will react by looking upset when he sees someone cry or feel pride when applauded for doing a task. The child imitates his environment, helps in simple household tasks and explores the environment more independently.

Between 18 and 30 months, individuation (autonomy) emerges. The confidence in the child-parent relationship and continued firm parenting helps the child face environmental challenges on his own more persistently and enthusiastically. The child’s temperament manifests itself more, and he is aggressive and reserved or friendly and cooperating.

Around 18 to 24 months he learns to pretend-play such as talking on a toy phone or feeding a doll and plays next to or in parallel with another child. He may imitate other child’s play and look at him but he cannot play in a cooperative, imaginative way with another child yet.

During preschool years he learns to manipulate his subjective emotions into a more socially accepted gesture. He uses a “poker face”, exaggerate or minimizes emotions for social etiquette. For example, he will say thank you for a present he didn’t like. The child refers to himself as “I” or “me” and possessiveness “mine” and negativism “no” emerge.

Between 30 and 54 months, impulse control, gender roles, and peer relationship issues emerge. A caregiver plays a major role in helping preschoolers define values and learn flexible self-control. Testing limits on what behaviors are acceptable and how much autonomy they can exert is an expected phenomenon.

Thoughtful parenting with a balance between setting limits and giving choices will successfully establish a child’s sense of initiative and decrease anxiety from guilt or loss of control. At 30 months pretend play skills emerge and the child shows evidence of symbolic play, using an object as something different like pretending a block to be a telephone or a bottle to feed a doll.

The play scenarios become more complex with themes and story-lines. By 3 years of age, the child engages more in interactive play, masters his aggression and learns cooperation and sharing skills. He can play with 1 or 2 peers, with turn-taking play and joint goals. Imaginative and fantasy play begin like pretending to be a cat and role-play skills develop.

The child, however, cannot yet distinguish between reality and imagination and it is common to be afraid of imaginary things. They master this skill to differentiate between real and imaginary around 4 years of age. They enjoy playing tricks on others and are worried about being tricked themselves. Imaginary scenarios and play skills are developing and become more complex. They can play with 3 to 4 peers, with more complex themes and pretend skills.

At 5 and 6 years of age, the child can follow simple rules and directions. He learns adult social skills like giving praise and apologizing for unintentional mistakes. He likes to spend more time in peer groups and relates to a group of friends. Imaginative play gets more complex, and he likes to play dress and act out his fantasies.

At 7 and 8 years of age, the child fully understands rules and regulations. He shows a deeper understanding of relationships and responsibilities and can take charge of simple chores. Moral development furthers, and he learns more complex coping skills. At this age, a child explores new ideas and activities and peers may test his beliefs. Children identify more with other children of similar gender and finding a best friend in common.

At 9 and 10 years of age, peer and friend groups take precedence over family. Children at this age will show increasing independent decision-making and a growing need for independence from family. Parents can use responsibilities and chores to earn time with friends. A positive nurturing relationship with a caregiver with praise and affection and setting up a reasonable balance between independence and house rules builds self-confidence and self-assurance. Promoting supportive adult relationships and increasing opportunities to take part in positive community activities increases resilience.

Greater independence and commitment to peer groups drive the transition to adolescence. This will include indulging in risky behavior to explore uncertain emotions and impress peer groups. Social interactions include complex relationships, disagreements, breakups, new friendships, and long-lasting relations.

Normally the adolescent will learn to cope with these stresses with healthy adult relationships and guidance to make independent decisions. As young adulthood approaches, school success and work-related activities become important. For a healthy transition to adulthood positive and supportive adult guidance and opportunities to take part constructively in the community play a pivotal role.

reference link :

Original Research: Open access.
Young children conform more to norms than to preferences” by Leon Li, Bari Britvan, Michael Tomasello. PLOS One


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