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Kids As Young As 14 Months Can Pick Up On Our Values, And It Shapes Future Behavior
  • Even if we are often told not to sweat over other people’s opinions of us, we still do. Whether we like it or not, what other people think plays a big part in how we behave ourselves in society. But does this apply to children as well?

    Psychologist Sara Valencia Botto explores this question in her TEDx talk titled “When do kids start to care about other people’s opinions?” Botto spent four years at Emory University in Atlanta to investigate when and how children begin to change their behaviors in the presence of others and explore what it means for the values we communicate to them in daily interactions.

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    Using a ‘game’ she designed with psychologist Dr. Philippe Rochat called “Robot Task,” Botto tried to capture when children, like adults, strategically modify their behavior when others are watching.

    “We showed 14 to 24-month-old infants how to activate a toy robot, and importantly, we either assigned a positive value, saying ‘Wow, isn’t that great!’ or a negative value, meaning, ‘Oh, oh. Oops, oh no,’ after pressing the remote,” she explained.

    She shares that the experiment’s goal was to find out if, by 24 months, children are indeed sensitive to the evaluation of others.  If yes, then the button-pressing behavior would be influenced not only by whether or not they’re being watched but also by the values the experimenter expressed towards pressing the remote.

    The study did three variations. The first did not assign a positive or negative value when pressing the remote button. The second assigned a positive and negative value when pressing the remote. And the third had two experimenters and one remote: Experimenter no. 1 expressed a negative value when the child pressed the remote, saying, “Yuck, the toy moved.” In contrast, the Experimenter no. 2 expressed a positive value, saying, “Yay, the toy moved.”

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    Our values shape children’s behavior

    The first variation showed a child took the safest route and waited until the experimenter turned her back before pressing the remote. The second one showed a child chose to press the positive remote significantly more when the experimenter was watching. He took the negative remote once the experimenter turned her back. The third variation showed a child pressed a remote significantly more when Experimenter no. 1 who expressed a positive value was watching.

    “So, as the data suggests, we found that children’s button-pressing behavior was indeed influenced by the values and the instructions of the experimenter,” said Botto. She adds that it is also around this age that “children begin to show embarrassment in situations that might elicit a negative evaluation.”

    Botto stresses that children early on, as adults, are sensitive to the values that are placed on objects and behaviors. “They use these values to guide their behavior. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re constantly communicating values to those around us,” she says.

    She elaborates that children pick up values through subtle behaviors like complimenting girls for their pretty hair and boys for their intelligence; or when offering candy, as opposed to nutritious food, as a reward for good behavior. “Adults and children are incredibly effective at picking up values from these subtle behaviors. And in turn, this ends up shaping their own behavior.”

    Botto ends her talk by inviting the audience to thinks twice about the values we broadcast in day-to-day interaction. “Parents and teachers certainly have the privilege to shape children’s behavior. But it is important to remember that through the values we convey in simple day-to-day interactions, we all have the power to shape the behavior of those around us,” she says.

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