Is the personality of an individual determined at birth

Chapter 4



1.   Is the personality of an individual determined at birth?

2.   Are the media today as important in a child’s socialization as the child’s family? Might the media be more important?

3.   Do people adjust the presentation of their personalities in interactions in order to leave particular impressions? Might we say that we have different “social selves” that we present in different settings?






We can find a box (or several boxes) of toys in most U.S. homes with children. Many of us can look back on our childhoods—whether they are a recent or distant memory—and recall a favorite toy. It might have been a smiling doll, a stuffed animal, a hardy truck or tank, or a set of colorful blocks. If we were lucky, we had an array of toys from which to choose our fun. In this chapter, we talk about agents of socialization, that is, the entities (like families, peers, and schools) that teach us the norms, rules, and roles of society. From a sociological perspective, toys are not just toys—rather, they too are agents of socialization, contributing to children’s early ideas of who they are and who they can be in society.

Like other key agents of socialization—families, peers, the media, school, and organized sports, among others—toys may contribute to a child’s sense of socially accepted roles, aspirations for the future, and perceptions of opportunities and limitations. If we as social beings are made not born, as sociologists argue, then toys contribute to the construction of boys and girls in ways that can be both predictable and surprising.

In 2014, two researchers at Oregon State University published a study with some attention-getting results. In this research, 37 girls ages 4 to 7 were each given one of three toys with which to play: a Mrs. Potato Head, a glamorous Barbie doll, or a doctor Barbie doll. After a short period of play, each subject was shown pictures depicting 10 female- and male-dominated professions, like librarian, teacher, and flight attendant (“female” jobs) and pilot, doctor, and firefighter (“male” jobs). With each picture, the subject was asked, “Could you do this job when you grow up?” and “Could a boy do this job when he grows up?” (see Figure 4.1). Notably, girls who played with either of the Barbie dolls identified fewer jobs that they could do than did the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head—and all of the girls in the study thought that a boy would be able to do a greater number of both the male- and female-dominated jobs (Sherman & Zurbriggen, 2014). Other research has shown that young girls exposed to Barbies express a stronger desire to be thin and have lower body self-esteem than do girls exposed to dolls with more realistic body proportions (Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006).


FIGURE 4.1 Number of Jobs Girls Think They Can Do Better or Worse Than Boys Based on Occupation Type


SOURCE: Sherman, A.M. and Zurbriggen, E.L. (2014). “‘Boys Can Be Anything’: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions.” Sex Roles, online publication, March 5. Copyright © 2014 Springer Science + Business Media New York. Reprinted with permission.




A young girl prays for blessings in the New Year on the shoulders of her father at the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. Many components of one’s culture are seamlessly passed down through habit, observational learning, and family practices.

These findings are provocative and raise some interesting questions: What is the power of toys? Do toys affect children’s aspirations and perceptions? And why did all of the girls in the 2014 study judge themselves less capable than boys of doing a variety of jobs? Efforts have been made to expose young girls to more career options through toys; for instance, the popular Lego brand has introduced female Lego scientist figures, including an astronomer, a paleontologist, and a chemist, complete with a beaker (Gambino, 2014). Might such changes encourage greater future interest among girls in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, where women are underrepresented? Do “boyish” toys already do that for boys? What do you think?

In this chapter, we examine the process of socialization and the array of agents that help shape our social selves and our behavioral choices. We begin by looking into the “nature versus nurture” debate and what sociology says about that debate. We then discuss the key agents of socialization, as well as the ways in which socialization may differ in total institutions and across the life course. We then examine theoretical perspectives on socialization. Finally, we look at social interaction and ways in which sociologists conceptualize our presentation of self and our group interactions.


Socialization is the process by which people learn the culture of their society. It is a lifelong and active process in which individuals construct their sense of who they are, how to think, and how to act as members of their culture. Socialization is our primary way of reproducing culture, including norms and values and the belief that our culture represents “normal” social practices and perceptions.



Nina Leen/Contributor/Getty Images

Given the choice in an experiment between a wire mother surrogate and a surrogate covered with cloth, the infant monkey almost invariably chose the cloth figure. How are human needs similar to and different from those we find in the animal kingdom?

The principal agents of socialization—including parents, teachers, religious institutions, friends, television, and the Internet—exert enormous influence on us. Much socialization takes place every day, usually without our thinking about it: when we speak, when others react to us, when we observe others’ behavior—even if only in the movies or on television—and in virtually every other human interaction.

Debate has raged in the social sciences over the relative influence of genetic inheritance (“nature”) and cultural and social experiences (“nurture”) in shaping people’s lives (Coleman & Hong, 2008; Ridgeway & Correll, 2004). If inborn biological predispositions explain differences in behaviors and interests between, say, sixth-grade boys and girls, or between a professional thief and the police officer who apprehends him, then understanding socialization will do little to help us understand those differences. On the other hand, if biology cannot adequately explain differences in attitudes, characters, and behaviors, then it becomes imperative that we examine the effects of socialization.

Almost no one today argues that behavior is entirely determined by either socialization or biology. There is doubtless an interaction between the two. What social scientists disagree about, however, is which is more important in shaping a person’s personality, life chances, philosophy of life, and behavior. In this text we lean toward socialization because we think the evidence points in that direction.

Social scientists have found little evidence to support the idea that personalities and behaviors are rooted exclusively in “human nature.” Indeed, very little human behavior is actually “natural.” For example, humans have a biological capacity for language, but language is learned and develops only through interaction. The weight of socialization in the development of language, reasoning, and social skills is dramatically illustrated in cases of children raised in isolation. If a biologically inherited mechanism alone triggered language, it would do so even in people who grow up deprived of contact with other human beings. If socialization plays a key role, however, then such people would not only have difficulty learning to speak like human beings, but they would also lack the capacity to play the social roles to which most of us are so accustomed.

One of the most fully documented cases of social isolation occurred more than 200 years ago. In 1800, a “wild boy,” later named Victor, was seen by hunters in the forests of Aveyron, a rural area of France (Shattuck, 1980). Victor had been living alone in the woods for most of his 12 or so years and could not speak, and although he stood erect, he ran using both arms and legs like an animal. Victor was taken into the home of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, a young medical doctor who, for the next 10 years, tried to teach him the social and intellectual skills expected of a child his age. According to Itard’s careful records, Victor managed to learn a few words, but he never spoke in complete sentences. Although he eventually learned to use the toilet, he continued to evidence “wild” behavior, including public masturbation. Despite the efforts of Itard and others, Victor was incapable of learning more than the most rudimentary social and intellectual skills; he died in Paris in 1828.

Other studies of the effects of isolation have centered on children raised by their parents, but in nearly total isolation. For 12 years, from the time she was 1½ years old, “Genie” (a pseudonym) saw only her father, mother, and brother, and only when one of them came to feed her. Genie’s father did not allow his wife or Genie to leave the house or have any visitors. Genie was either strapped to a child’s potty-chair or placed in a sleeping bag that limited her movements. Genie rarely heard any conversation. If she made noises, her father beat her (Curtiss, 1977; Rymer, 1993).

When Genie was 13, her mother took her and fled the house. Genie was unable to cry, control her bowels, eat solid food, or talk. Because of her tight confinement, she had not even learned to focus her eyes beyond 12 feet. She was constantly salivating and spitting, and she had little controlled use of her arms or legs (Rymer, 1993).

  Wild Child: The Story Of Feral Children CLICK TO SHOW


Gradually Genie learned some of the social behavior expected of a child. For example, she became toilet trained and learned to wear clothes. However, although intelligence tests did not indicate reasoning disability, even after 5 years of concentrated effort on the part of a foster mother, social workers, and medical doctors, Genie never learned to speak beyond the level of a 4-year-old, and she never spoke with other people. Although she responded positively to those who treated her with sympathy, Genie’s social behavior remained severely underdeveloped for the rest of her life (Rymer, 1993).

Genie’s and Victor’s experiences underscore the significance of socialization, especially during childhood. Their cases show that however rooted in biology certain capacities may be, they do not develop into recognizable human ways of acting and thinking unless the individual interacts with other humans in a social environment. Children raised in isolation fail to develop complex language, abstract thinking, notions of cooperation and sharing, or even a sense of themselves as people. In other words, they do not develop the hallmarks of what we know as humanity (Ridley, 1998).

Sociologists and other social scientists have developed a number of theories to explain the role of socialization in the development of social selves. What these theories recognize is that whatever the contribution of biology, ultimately people as social beings are made, not born. Below, we explore four approaches to understanding socialization: behaviorism, symbolic interactionism, developmental stage theories, and psychoanalytic theories.


Behaviorism is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the effect of rewards and punishments on human behavior. It arose during the late 19th century to challenge the then-popular belief that human behavior results primarily from biological instincts and drives (Baldwin & Baldwin, 1986, 1988; Dishion, McCord, & Poulin, 1999). Early behaviorist researchers such as Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) and John Watson (1878–1958), and later B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), demonstrated that even behavior thought to be purely instinctual (such as a dog salivating when it sees food) can be produced or extinguished through the application of rewards and punishments. Thus, a pigeon will learn to press a bar if that triggers the release of food (Skinner, 1938, 1953; Watson, 1924). Behaviorists concluded that both animal and human behavior can be learned, and neither is just instinctive.

When they turned to human beings, behaviorists focused on social learning, the way people adapt their behavior in response to social rewards and punishments (Baldwin & Baldwin, 1986; Bandura, 1977; Bandura & Walters, 1963). Of particular interest was the satisfaction people get from imitating others. Social learning theory thus combines the reward-and-punishment effects identified by behaviorists with the idea that we model the behavior of others; that is, we observe the way people respond to others’ behavior.

Social learning theory would predict, for example, that if a boy gets high fives from his friends for talking back to his teacher—a form of encouragement rather than punishment—he is likely to repeat this behavior. What’s more, other boys may imitate it. Social learning researchers have developed formulas for predicting how rewards and punishments affect behavior. For example, rewards given repeatedly may become less effective when the individual becomes satiated. If you have just eaten a huge piece of cake, you are less likely to feel rewarded by the prospect of another.

Social behaviorism is not widely embraced today as a rigorous perspective on human behavior. One reason is that only in carefully controlled laboratory environments is it easy to demonstrate the power of rewards and punishments. In real social situations the theory is of limited value as a predictor. For example, whether a girl who is teased (“punished”) for playing football will lose interest in the sport depends on many other experiences, such as the support of family and friends and her own enjoyment of the activity. The simple application of rewards and punishments is hardly sufficient to explain why people repeat some behaviors and not others.

In addition, behaviorist theories violate Popper’s principle of falsification (discussed in Chapter 2). Since what was previously rewarding may lose effectiveness if the person is satiated, if a reward does not work, we can always attribute its failure to satiation. Therefore, no matter the outcome of the experiment, the theory has to be true; it cannot be proven false. For these reasons sociologists find behaviorism an inadequate theory of socialization. To explain how people become socialized, they highlight theories that emphasize symbolic interaction.


Recall from the introductory chapter that symbolic interactionism views the self and society as resulting from social interaction based on language and other symbols. Symbolic interactionism has proven especially fruitful in explaining how individuals develop a social identity and a capacity for social interaction (Blumer, 1969, 1970; Hutcheon, 1999; Mead, 1934, 1938).

An early contribution to symbolic interactionism was Charles Horton Cooley’s (1864–1929) concept of the looking-glass self, the self-image that results from our interpretation of other people’s views of us. For example, children who are frequently told they are smart or talented will tend to see themselves as such and act accordingly. On the other hand, children who are repeatedly told they lack intelligence or are “slow” will lose pride in themselves and act the part. According to Cooley (1902/1964), we are constantly forming ideas about how others perceive and judge us, and the resulting self-image—the way we view ourselves—is in turn the basis of our social interaction with others.

  Deprivation of Social Interaction CLICK TO SHOW




As a reference group, high school peers may provide the normative standards for a young person to judge his or her fashion sense, musical tastes, behavioral choices, and academic commitment. Does the power of peers as a reference group change in the college years?

Cooley recognized that not everyone we encounter is equally important in shaping our self-image. Primary groups are small groups characterized by intense emotional ties, face-to-face interaction, intimacy, and a strong, enduring sense of commitment. Families, close friends, and lovers are all examples of primary groups likely to shape our self-image. Secondary groups, on the other hand, are large and impersonal, characterized by fleeting relationships. We spend much of our adult lives in secondary groups, such as college classrooms and workplaces, but secondary groups typically have less influence in forming our self-image than do primary groups. Both kinds of groups act on us throughout our lives; the self-image is not set in concrete at some early stage but continues to develop throughout adulthood (Barber, 1992; Berns, 1989).

Both primary and secondary groups also serve as reference groups, or groups that provide standards for judging our attitudes or behaviors. When you consider your friends’ reactions to your dress or hairstyle or the brand of mobile phone you plan to buy, you are using your peers as a reference in shaping your decisions.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), widely regarded as the founder of symbolic interactionism, explored the ways in which self and society shape one another. Mead proposed that the self comprises two parts: the “I” and the “me.” The I is the impulse to act; it is creative, innovative, unthinking, and largely unpredictable. The me is the part of the self through which we see ourselves as others see us. (Note the similarity between Mead’s “me” and Cooley’s “looking-glass self.”) The I represents innovation; the me, social convention and conformity. In the tension between them, the me is often capable of controlling the I. When the I initiates a spontaneous act, the me raises society’s response: How will others regard me if I act this way?

Mead further argued that people develop a sense of self through role-taking, the ability to take the roles of others in interaction. For example, a young girl playing soccer may pretend to be a coach; in the process, she learns to see herself (as well as other players) from a coach’s perspective. Mead proposed that childhood socialization relies on an ever-increasing ability to take on such roles, moving from the extreme self-centeredness of the infant to an adult ability to take the standpoint of society as a whole. He outlined four principal stages in socialization that reflect this progression: the preparatory, play, game, and adult stages. The completion of each stage results in an increasingly mature social self.

1.  During the preparatory stage, children younger than 3 years old relate to the world as though they are the center of the universe. They do not engage in true role-taking but respond primarily to things in their immediate environments, such as their mothers’ breasts, the colors of toys, or the sounds of voices.

2.  Children 3 or 4 years of age enter the play stage, during which they learn to take the attitudes and roles of the people with whom they interact. Significant others are the specific people important in children’s lives and whose views have the greatest impact on the children’s self-evaluations. By role-playing at being mothers or fathers, for example, children come to see themselves as their parents see them. However, according to Mead, they have not yet acquired the complex sense of self that lets them see themselves through the eyes of many different people—or society.

  Socialization and Men CLICK TO SHOW



© Jim West / Alam

Game playing is an activity found in some form in every culture. Some games, including basketball and soccer, require teamwork, while others, including checkers and mancala, are played by one person against another. Team sports games provide many socialization benefits, as young children learn how to interact with one another and develop their motor skills.

3.  The game stage begins when children are about 5 and learn to take the roles of multiple others. The game is an effective analogy for this stage. For example, to be an effective basketball player, an individual must have the ability to see him- or herself from the perspective of teammates, the other team, and the coach, and must play accordingly. He or she must know the rules of the game. Successful negotiation of the social world also requires that people gain the ability to see themselves as others see them, to understand societal “rules,” and to act accordingly. This stage signals the development of a self that is aware of societal positions and perspectives.

4.  Game playing takes the child to the final, adult stage, which can appear as early as the first and second grades. Children at this stage have internalized the generalized other, the sense of society’s norms values by which people evaluate themselves. They take into account a set of general principles that may or may not serve their self-interest—for example, voluntarily joining the army to fight in a war that might injure or kill them because patriotic young people are expected to defend their country. By the adult stage, a person is capable of understanding abstract and complex cultural symbols, such as love and hate, success and failure, friendship, and morality.

Mead also had a vision that in the future people would be able to assimilate a multitude of generalized others, adapting their behavior in terms of their own but also other people’s cultures. Mead’s “dream of a highly multicultural world” may someday be a reality as globalization makes ever more people aware of the value of other cultures.


Like Mead and Cooley, the Swiss social psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) believed humans are socialized in stages. Piaget devoted a lifetime to researching how young children develop the ability to think abstractly and make moral judgments (Piaget, 1926, 1928, 1930, 1932). His theory of cognitive development, based largely on studies of Swiss children at play (including his own), argues that an individual’s ability to make logical decisions increases as the person grows older. Piaget noted that infants are highly egocentric, experiencing the world as if it were centered entirely on them. In stages over time, socialization lets children learn to use language and symbols, to think abstractly and logically, and to see things from different perspectives.

Piaget also developed a theory of moral development, which holds that as they grow, people learn to act according to abstract ideas about justice or fairness. This theory parallels his idea of cognitive development, since both describe overcoming egocentrism and acquiring the ability to take other points of view. Eventually children come to develop abstract notions of fairness, learning that rules should be judged relative to the circumstances. For example, even if the rules say “three strikes and you’re out,” an exception might be made for a child who has never played the game or who is physically challenged.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) extended Piaget’s ideas about moral development. In his best-known study, subjects were told the story of the fictitious “Heinz,” who was unable to afford a drug that might prevent his wife from dying of cancer. As the story unfolds, Heinz breaks into the druggist’s shop and steals the medication. Kohlberg asked his subjects what they would have done, emphasizing that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Using experiments such as this, Kohlberg (1969, 1983, 1984) proposed three principal stages (and several substages) of moral development:

1.  The preconventional stage, during which people seek simply to achieve personal gain or avoid punishment. A person might support Heinz’s decision to steal on the grounds that it would be too difficult to get the medicine by other means, or oppose it on the grounds that Heinz might get caught and go to jail. Children are typically socialized into this rudimentary form of morality between ages 7 and 10.


2.  The conventional stage, during which the individual is socialized into society’s norms and values and would feel shame or guilt about violating them. The person might support Heinz’s decision to steal on the grounds that society would judge him callous if he let his wife die, or oppose it because people would call Heinz a thief if he were caught. Children are socialized into this more developed form of morality at about age 10, and most people remain in this stage throughout their adult lives.

3.  The postconventional stage, during which the individual invokes general, abstract notions of right and wrong. Even though Heinz has broken the law, his transgression has to be weighed against the moral cost of sacrificing his wife’s life. People at the highest levels of postconventional morality will go beyond social convention entirely, appealing to a higher set of abstract principles.

Some scholars have argued that Kohlberg’s theory reflects a strong male bias because it derives from male rather than female experience. Foremost among Kohlberg’s critics is Carol Gilligan (1982; Gilligan, Ward, & Taylor, 1989), who argues that men may be socialized to base moral judgment on abstract principles of fairness and justice, but women are socialized to base theirs on compassion and caring. She showed that women scored lower on Kohlberg’s measure of moral development because they valued how other family members were affected by Heinz’s decision more than abstract considerations of justice. Because it assumes that abstract thinking represents a “higher stage” of development, Gilligan suggests, Kohlberg’s measure is necessarily biased in favor of male socialization.

Research testing Gilligan’s ideas has found that men and women alike adhere to both care-based and justice-based forms of moral reasoning (Gump, Baker, & Roll, 2000; Jaffee & Hyde, 2000). Differences between the sexes in these kinds of reasoning are in fact small or nonexistent. Studies of federal employees (Peek, 1999), a sample of men and women using the Internet (Anderson, 2000), and a sample of Mexican American and Anglo-American students (Gump et al., 2000) have all found no significant difference between men and women in the degree to which they employ care-based and justice-based styles of moral reasoning. In her effort to correct Kohlberg’s research, which looked only at men, might Gilligan have also contributed to gender stereotypes?


Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), an Austrian psychiatrist, had a major impact on the study of socialization as well as the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. Freud (1905, 1929, 1933) founded the field of psychoanalysis, a psychological perspective that emphasizes the complex reasoning processes of the conscious and unconscious mind. He stressed the role of the unconscious mind in shaping human behavior and theorized that early childhood socialization is essential in molding the adult personality by age 5 or 6. In addition, Freud sought to demonstrate that in order to to thrive, a society must socialize its members to curb their instinctive needs and desires.


FIGURE 4.2 The Id, Ego, and Superego, as Conceived by Freud



According to Freud, the human mind has three components: the id, the ego, and the superego (Figure 4.2). The id is the repository of basic biological drives and needs, which Freud believed to be primarily bound up in sexual energy. (Id is Latin for “it,” reflecting Freud’s belief that this aspect of the human personality is not even truly human.) The ego (Latin for “I”) is the “self,” the core of what we regard as a person’s unique personality. The superego consists of the values and norms of society, insofar as they are internalized, or taken in, by the individual. The concept of the superego is similar to the notion of a conscience.


Freud believed that babies are all id. Left to their own devices, they will seek instant gratification of their biological needs for food, physical contact, and nurturing. Therefore, according to Freud, to be socialized they must eventually learn to suppress such gratification. The child’s superego, consisting of cultural “shoulds” and “should nots,” struggles constantly with the biological impulses of the id. Serving as mediator between id and superego is the child’s emerging ego. In Freud’s view, the child will grow up to be a well-socialized adult to the extent that the ego succeeds in bending the biological desires of the id to meet the social demands of the superego.

Since Freud claimed that personality is set early in life, he viewed change as difficult for adults, especially if psychological troubles originate in experiences too painful to face or remember. Individuals must become fully aware of their repressed or unconscious memories and unacceptable impulses if they ever hope to change (Freud, 1933). Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy focused on accessing deeply buried feelings in order to help patients alter current behaviors and feelings. Whereas Mead saw socialization as a lifelong process relying on many socialization agents, for Freud it stopped at a young age. Table 4.1 compares Mead’s and Freud’s views point by point.


TABLE 4.1   Comparison of Mead’s and Freud’s Theories of Socialization


SOURCE: Adapted from Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


FIGURE 4.3 Agents of Socialization




Among primary groups, the family is for most people the single most critical agent of socialization. Other significant agents are school, peer groups, work, religion, and technology and mass media, including the Internet and social media (Figure 4.3).


The family is a primary group in which children, especially during the earliest years of their lives, are physically and emotionally dependent on adult members. It plays a key role in transmitting norms, values, and culture across generations, and as a result it is the first and usually the foremost source of socialization in all societies.

Children usually first encounter their society in the family, learning socially defined roles like father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, and grandparent, and the expected behaviors attached to them. Parents often hold stereotypical notions of how boys and girls should be, and they reinforce gender behaviors in countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways. A father may be responsible for grilling and yard work, while a mother cooks dinner and cleans the house. On the other hand, some families embrace egalitarian or nonconventional gender roles. Although same-sex couple families are more likely than families headed by opposite-sex couples to challenge gender-normative roles and behaviors, they sometimes still enforce or support typical gender roles for their children (Ackbar, 2011; Bos & Sandfort, 2010).

The way parents relate to their child affects virtually every aspect of the child’s behavior, including the ability to resolve conflicts through the use of reason instead of violence and the propensity for emotional stability or distress. The likelihood that young people will be victims of homicide, commit suicide, engage in acts of aggression against other people, use drugs, complete their secondary education, or have an unwanted pregnancy also is greatly influenced by childhood experiences in the family (Campbell & Muncer, 1998; McLoyd & Smith, 2002; Muncer & Campbell, 2000). For example, children who are regularly spanked or otherwise physically punished internalize the idea that violence is an acceptable means of achieving goals and are more likely than peers who are not spanked to engage in aggressive delinquent behavior. They are also more likely to have low self-esteem, suffer depression, and do poorly in school (Borgeson, 2001; Straus et al., 1997). (See the Private Lives, Public Issues box on page 88.)

  South park and Gender Socialization CLICK TO SHOW
  Parenting and Empathy CLICK TO SHOW






Spencer Grant/Photo Researchers, Inc.

Should parents spank their children? Ask some friends or classmates what they think. You may find a wide range of opinions on this practice.

While many people still believe in the adage “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” the use of physical punishment in socializing children varies largely by social class. At a rate that has largely held steady in the past decades, about 65% of U.S. adults approve of spanking under certain circumstances. Interestingly, these adults are most likely to be members of the working class, rather than the middle or upper class (Berlin et al., 2009; Borgeson, 2001; Rosellini & Mulrine, 1998). Remember Kohn’s (1989) research, which concluded that the experience of people in working-class employment is reflected in their child-rearing practices: Working-class parents are more likely to emphasize obedience than are middle-class parents, who tend to stress independent thinking. The use of corporal punishment, however, is not only a matter of social class or a private decision made by parents in the home. It is also a public issue with social consequences.

Murray Straus, a prominent sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, found that when boys and girls 6 to 9 years old were spanked, they became more antisocial—more likely to cheat, tell lies, act cruelly to others, break things deliberately, and get into trouble at school (Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997; also see McKee et al., 2007). Straus and his colleagues concluded that reducing corporal punishment would not only benefit children but also possibly reduce antisocial behavior.

Other research evidence supports Straus’s conclusions (Borgeson, 2001; de Paul & Domenech, 2000). For example, one study concluded that corporal punishment, and even some lesser forms of parental punishment, could have a strong effect on a child’s ability to cope later in life (Welsh, 1998). Similarly, the authors of a study of Israeli high school students found that adolescents whose parents routinely resorted to physical punishment were more likely than others to have psychiatric symptoms and lower levels of well-being in general (Bachar, Canetti, Bonne, DeNour, & Shalev, 1997). On the other hand, research by psychologist Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe (1997), which tracked more than 1,100 children over a 5-year period, found that while some 8- to 11-year-old boys, but not girls, who had been spanked regularly got into more fights at school, children of both sexes ages 4 to 7 who had been spanked regularly got into fewer fights than children who were not spanked. Most research, however, confirms the negative effects of spanking.

Although not all the research findings on the effects of physical punishment are in agreement, the evidence does suggest that spanking—an aggressive form of punishment—may result in aggressive behavior on the part of children. The parents’ “private” decision to use corporal punishment becomes a “public issue,” since children who are physically punished at home are more likely to become physically aggressive outside the home.


Using the knowledge you have gained through the study of socialization, and knowing the results of research on the effects of physical punishment on children’s behavior, could you design a social policy or program to reduce the use of physical punishment in the home?



Spencer Grant/Photo Researchers, Inc.

Schools are an important agent of socialization. Students learn academic skills and knowledge, but they also gain social skills, acquire dominant values of citizenship, and practice obedience to authority.

Child-rearing practices within families can vary by ethnicity or religious affiliation. Because U.S. culture is ethnically diverse, it is difficult to describe a “typical” American family (Glazer, 1997; Stokes & Chevan, 1996). Among Latinos, for example, the family often includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws, who share child-rearing responsibilities. Among African Americans as well, child rearing may be shared among a broader range of family members than in White families (Lubeck, 1985). Extended family patterns also occur among Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the Amish religious community of Pennsylvania (Forsythe-Brown, 2007; Ho, 1993; Stokes & Chevan, 1996).

Child-rearing practices may vary by social class as well. Parents whose jobs require them to be subservient to authority and to follow orders without raising questions typically stress obedience and respect for authority at home, while parents whose work gives them freedom to make their own decisions and be creative are likely to socialize their children into norms of creativity and spontaneity. Since many working-class jobs demand conformity while middle- and upper-middle-class jobs are more likely to offer independence, social class may be a key factor in explaining differences in child rearing (Kohn, 1989; Lareau, 2002).

Family patterns are changing rapidly in the United States, partly because of declining marriage rates and high rates of divorce. Such changes affect socialization. For example, children raised by a single parent may lack role models for the parent who is missing or experience economic hardship that in turn determines where they go to school or with whom they socialize. Children raised in blended families (the result of remarriage) may have stepparents and stepsiblings whose norms, values, and behavior are unfamiliar. Same-sex couple families may both challenge and, as noted earlier, reinforce conventional modes of socialization, particularly with respect to gender socialization. Although families are changing, the influence of agents of socialization remains powerful.


Children in the United States often begin “schooling” when they enter day care or preschool as infants or toddlers, and they spend more hours each day and more days each year in school than was the case a hundred years ago (although they spend less time in school than their peers in Europe and Asia). Indeed, education has taken on a large role in helping young people prepare for adult society. In addition to reading, writing, math, and other academic subjects, schools are expected to teach values and norms like patriotism, competitiveness, morality, and respect for authority, as well as basic social skills. Some sociologists call this the hidden curriculum, that is, the unspoken classroom socialization into the norms, values, and roles of a society that schools provide along with the “official” curriculum. The hidden curriculum may include “lessons” in gender roles taught through teachers’ differing expectations of boys and girls, with, for instance, boys pushed to pursue higher math while girls are encouraged

"Is this question part of your assignment? We can help"