In This Issue

Authors

  • Anne Bridgman


In-Groups and Out-Groups

Peer rejection and social exclusion are facts of social life. Most childhood research on peer rejection has looked at interpersonal rejection, that is, rejection due to individual differences regarding personality traits that explain relational aggression, victimization, and becoming an outcast among peers. Killen, Mulvey, and Hitti (p. 772) propose that what appears to be interpersonal rejection in some contexts may, in fact, reflect intergroup exclusion, which stems not from individual personality deficits but from prejudicial attitudes about group membership, such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. In their review, they describe a developmental intergroup social exclusion framework that focuses on social reasoning, moral judgment, and group identity. At a time of increasingly diverse family, school, and work environments, research on how children and adolescents reject or justify social exclusion gives us important information for designing intervention programs to reduce prejudice and increase positive social relationships.

Genes contribute to difficulties children have with their peers in the early years of school, according to this longitudinal study by Boivin et al. (p. 1098), which followed Canadian twins from 662 families from 5 months to 5 years and then in first and fourth grades to examine the genetic and environmental contributions to peer rejection and victimization. Given that peer difficulties are an experience rather than a characteristic, the study suggests that children's behaviors that are partly influenced by genetic factors, such as hyperactivity and aggression, may provoke these negative experiences. The findings highlight the importance of child characteristics in the process, and the need for early and prevention efforts that target both the child and the peer context to avoid the establishment of negative peer experiences and their negative consequences.

Children are motivated to present a positive view of their own group (the in-group), setting the stage for intergroup prejudice, which involves negative attitudes toward members of other groups (out-groups). However, research on group dynamics has focused mostly on conventional norms, such as team loyalty. Little research has examined children's in-group biases in the context of group dynamics involving norms about morality, such as resource allocation. To determine how children think about members of their own groups who reject moral norms, Killen, Rutland, Abrams, Mulvey, and Hitti (p. 1063) studied about 380 children in fourth and eighth grades to determine whether they would view as wrong in-group members who went against either equality-related norms or conventional norms. The children were from middle-income backgrounds and reflected U.S. ethnic backgrounds. Their study finds that all children viewed deviance about moral norms as different from deviance about conventional norms. The results indicate that ingroup bias was less relevant for moral than for conventional norms, which was related to social inclusion and exclusion decisions.

Working Teens

Many high-school students work in addition to going to school, and it's been argued that employment is good for at-risk youths. But little is known about how working during the school year affects these youths, especially in terms of delinquent behavior. Monahan, Steinberg, and Cauffman (p. 791) took a longitudinal look at about 1,350 serious juvenile offenders ages 14–17, most of whom came from low-income families. Findings: Going to school regularly without working was associated with the least antisocial behavior, and high-intensity employment (defined as more than 20 hours a week) was associated with diminished antisocial behavior only among youths who also went to school regularly. Youths who worked long hours and didn't attend school regularly were at the greatest risk for antisocial behavior, followed by youths who worked long hours and didn't go to school at all. The findings suggest caution in recommending employment in and of itself as a remedy for adolescents’ antisocial behavior.

Perceiving and Acting: Spatial Relations, Faces, Objects, and Numbers

When it comes to spatial relations between objects (such as one object placed inside another), how do infants learn best? Casasola and Park (p. 1004) examined whether infants best learn to recognize the type of spatial relation between two objects, such as containment (i.e., inside of) and support (i.e., on top of), with a lot of examples or just a few to familiarize themselves with the concept. Researchers tested about 130 primarily White infants (ages 10 and 14 months), most from college-educated families, in a visual habituation task that used the amount of time infants spent looking at something to measure their ability to discriminate between familiarized and novel spatial events. They find significant differences in the ideal learning conditions for infants at each age, showing that babies become more skillful in recognizing spatial relations between 10 and 14 months.

Seeing faces is an important aspect of infants’ everyday experiences. Studies show that significant changes in how babies perceive faces happen in the first year of life, with infants becoming “little experts” in the kinds of faces they encounter often. Cashon, Ha, Allen, and Barna (p. 802) looked at 111 predominantly middle-class, White infants ranging in age from 5 to 7 months, gauging their abilities to sit upright and process faces. They find that infants’ processing of upright faces is related to sitting ability: Infants who had not yet begun learning to sit (nonsitters) and those who had already mastered sitting (expert sitters) processed upright faces holistically, whereas those who were in the process of learning to sit (near and new sitters) failed to do so. This suggests that the variability and daily input that infants get from different perspectives of faces affects how they process faces.

Why do infants bang objects? Kahrs, Jung, and Lockman (p. 810) analyzed the movements of 20 predominantly White infants (ages 6–15 months) as they used a hammer-like object to explore how the babies’ early experiences affect and translate to later actual tool use. They find a difference in how the infants moved their hands: The younger babies moved in variable and inefficient patterns involving a lot of sideways movement, while the older babies used an efficient and consistent straight up-and-down motion that allowed for better aim and force delivery. Rather than just making noise when they bang objects, infants, the study shows, are also tuning up the manual system to use tools such as hammers effectively.

Educators often use concrete objects (such as toys, tiles, and blocks) to help children understand math concepts, but findings on the effectiveness of this approach are mixed. Petersen and McNeil (p. 1020) examined how two factors—perceptual richness (such as the brightness or shine of an object) and established knowledge of objects (that is, whether children are familiar with an object)—combine to influence children's counting performance. In their study of more than 130 predominantly White preschoolers (ages 2–4) from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, they find that children's counting performance depended on aspects of the objects being counted. Specifically, objects that were perceptually rich helped children's performance when children were unfamiliar with the objects, but hindered their performance when they were very familiar with the objects.

Toddlers’ Transgressions and Tantrums

Caregivers encounter a variety of child transgressions—children hitting others, making a mess, doing something dangerous—when their charges are 1. Dahl and Campos (p. 817) looked at 60 mostly upper-middle-class, White mothers of 11- to 23-month-olds to find that moms respond differently to different transgressions in behavioral, verbal, and emotional ways. Many seem to adapt their responses to the issue at stake—for example, using distraction for messy behavior and reasoning for actions that are harmful to others. These differences may be a key contributor to the development of children's moral, safety-related, and other norms and values.

Angry outbursts like temper tantrums are common among toddlers, but by the time children enter school, they're expected to have more self-control. To help them acquire this skill, they're taught to use skills like “using your words.” Roben, Cole, and Armstrong (p. 891) sought to determine whether developing language skills relates to developing anger control; specifically, does developing language ability cut down on anger between ages 2 and 4? A total of 120 predominantly White children from families above poverty but below middle income were studied from 18 to 48 months. Toddlers with more developed language skills had better self-regulation when offered a gift and asked to wait 8 minutes to open it. These children were more likely to seek support from their mothers and find other ways to amuse themselves until they could open the gift. Children who had better language skills as toddlers and whose language developed at a faster rate expressed less anger when they were 48 months old. The study can inform prevention, treatment, and parenting practices.

Social Bonding

Oxytocin, a “social bonding” hormone widely known for its role in creating the close emotional tie between biological parents and infants, is involved in foster moms’ bonding with their babies, according to Bick, Dozier, Berhard, Grasso, and Simons (p. 826). They studied about 40 foster mothers and infants ranging in age from .5 months to 35 months and from a variety of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Findings: Foster moms who produced more oxytocin after cuddling with their foster infants showed greater delight when playing with their foster infants than foster moms who produced less oxytocin. Oxytocin was also associated with foster mothers’ brain activity when they viewed images of their foster infants and other babies. By highlighting the role of oxytocin as a hormonal indicator of maternal bonding between foster moms and their babies, this study can help us understand why foster moms vary in the quality of caregiving they provide to these at-risk infants. It can also inform interventions to promote healthy parent–infant relationships.

Homelessness

About a million American schoolchildren are homeless each year and many more are thought to move frequently. Cutuli et al. (p. 841) find that children who are homeless or move often have chronically lower math and reading skills in elementary and middle school than other low-income students who don't move as much, and that the achievement gaps remain or worsen as students approach high school. Their longitudinal study of more than 26,000 students in the Minneapolis Public Schools, a large urban district, also finds that even though children who were homeless or moved a lot showed low achievement as a group, there was striking variation in individual children's achievement. Almost half scored within the average range or better, which suggests that many of these children show academic resilience. The study is relevant to decision makers and can inform intervention efforts.

African American Teens

African American mothers have been found to be more demanding and have higher expectations for their daughters than for their sons, parenting differences that show up in academic achievement. Varner and Mandara (p. 875) looked at almost 800 socioeconomically diverse African American families (each with a mom and an 11- to 14-year-old adolescent). They find significant differences in how African American mothers parent their children: Moms of sons were more concerned about racial discrimination and its effect on their children's futures, and had lower expectations for their children's future academic success and behavior. Moms of daughters, on the other hand, were more concerned about unfair treatment due to gender, monitored their children more, and reported less conflict. The findings suggest that the history of discrimination in the United States has long-lasting implications for African American children's development and for their parents’ childrearing practices. As such, they can inform interventions for parents, teachers, and schools.

Research suggests that African American teens who are exposed to neighborhood disadvantage (such as concentrated poverty and limited resources) may have more mental health problems, but certain neighborhood characteristics may reduce youths’ risk for psychological distress. Hurd, Stoddard, and Zimmerman (p. 858) studied about 570 urban African American teens (average age 17, from working-class families) to determine how neighborhood characteristics influence African American adolescents’ symptoms of anxiety and depression. Teens in neighborhoods with more residents who were African American and who were residentially stable had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety because they received more social support (from parents, peers, and nonparental adults) and had more positive perceptions of their neighborhoods. Teens in neighborhoods with more poverty and unemployment had more symptoms of depression and anxiety because they got less social support and had fewer positive perceptions of their neighborhoods. The findings of this longitudinal study can inform prevention and intervention efforts.

Playing Well Together

Young children are known for their reluctance to share toys and other belongings, with “mine” being a favorite early retort, but children ultimately come to exhibit generosity and selflessness, according to Brownell, Iesue, Nichols, and Svetlova (p. 906). Their examination of the developmental origins and early growth of sharing in about 50 predominantly White 18- and 24-month-olds from urban, working- and middle-class families finds that sharing valued resources like toys emerges in the second year and grows rapidly, along with children's understanding of who owns what. The study shows that this sort of other-oriented prosocial responding appears early, relates to children's understanding of social concepts such as ownership, and depends on adults’ support and encouragement when it first emerges.

Why do girls play with girls and boys play with boys? In their longitudinal study, Martin et al. (p. 921) considered the origins of sex segregation by focusing on how almost 300 mostly Mexican-American preschoolers (ages 3–5 and enrolled in 18 Head Start classrooms) formed their play networks and how their playmates influenced them in return. They find that gender has a powerful effect on children's sex segregation through multiple pathways, both direct and indirect: Children selected peers because they were of the same sex and shared similar levels of interest in gender-typed activities. Once these ties formed, children influenced each other's interests to show similar levels of engagement in gender-typed activities, amplifying tendencies to segregate by sex.

Fights between siblings about simple things, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, aren't harmless. Rather, they're about equality and fairness, and they can lead to depression, according to Campione-Barr, Greer, and Kruse (p. 938). In their longitudinal look at 145 pairs of mostly European American, middle-class siblings—average ages were 15 and 12—over the course of a year, the researchers find that teens who fought with their siblings over equality and fairness issues were more depressed a year later than those who fought less about these issues. And teens who fought with their siblings about personal space issues were more anxious and had lower self-esteem a year later than those who fought less about these issues. The findings can help those who live and work with teens understand that not all sibling conflicts are created equally.

Moral Breaches and Teen Conflicts

Adolescents and young adults process moral and conventional violations differently, according to Lahat, Helwig, and Zelazo (p. 955). They looked at the cognitive processes that occurred in the brain while two dozen 12- to 14-year-olds and thirty 20-year-olds judged moral breaches (such as hitting, lying, and stealing) and conventional violations (such as eating with your fingers or wearing pajamas to school). Most of those taking part in the study were European Canadian. The study finds differences between adolescents and young adults in their neurocognitive processing of moral violations. This suggests that even though young children can distinguish between moral and conventional violations, the neurocognitive processing underlying these judgments continues to develop between early adolescence and young adulthood.

Although much is known about how to prevent aggression among children and young adolescents, it's been difficult to find interventions that work consistently with high school students. In their study of 230 youths ages 14–16, Yeager, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (p. 970) examined the psychological underpinnings of high school students’ aggressive retaliation in response to exclusion or bullying. Findings: A program that taught students that people have the potential to change reduced aggressive reactions in an urban high school over the course of the school year, compared to a control group that got no treatment; aggression did not decline among students who only learned positive coping skills. The program also reduced depression among bullied teens. Helping teens understand that traits are not fixed throughout life holds promise as a way to reduce aggression and promote coping. Findings from this study also suggest that if parents, teachers, or the media label teens as fixed “bullies,” this can lead victims to be more vulnerable when they encounter peer victimization.

Theory of Mind in Middle Childhood

Children's understanding of others’ minds continues to develop across middle childhood and matters for their social experiences, according to Devine and Hughes (p. 989), who considered theory of mind in middle childhood, an under-researched age group. Their study tested 230 British children (ages 8–13 and primarily from affluent families) on their understanding of characters’ thoughts and beliefs using a novel test based on silent film clips. Girls outperformed boys on these measures (despite being matched with boys in age and on a measure of verbal intelligence). Girls who performed poorly on theory of mind tests felt lonelier than their better-performing peers, and boys who performed poorly on the tests felt excluded by their peers. The study suggests that, far from being fully formed in the preschool years, children's understanding of the mind develops across childhood and into early adolescence.

Developing Vocabulary

Young children's vocabulary may be shaped by the ways their grandparents talked to their parents as teens, according to Sohr-Preston et al. (p. 1046). Their three-generation study traced the influence of grandparents and parents on children's vocabulary skills at 3–4 years. The manner in which the grandparents talked with the parents when they were in middle and high school was related to the quality of home environment the parents created for the child, which in turn predicted the child's language skills. This longitudinal study has been following 125 White, middle-class families since the parents were in middle school. The results support intergenerational links among family socioeconomic status (income and education level), parent–child communication styles, and children's vocabulary development.

U.S. schools are seeing an increase in bilingual students. Vocabulary development is challenging but important for reading comprehension and academic success, and children who are bilingual may face more challenges in building semantic knowledge because they have to learn two sets of vocabulary. Sheng, Bedore, Peña, and Fiestas (p. 1034) studied 60 mostly low-income Spanish-English bilingual children ages 7–9 who varied by age and amount of language experience. Findings: Both general development (as indexed by age) and experiences using a specific language drive semantic development, but experience was a stronger determinant than age for bilingual children during middle childhood. The study can inform parents and educators who work with bilingual children, helping them understand that expectations of bilingual language development should be based on children's language experience and use patterns rather than on age alone.

Cross-Ethnic Ties

Cross-ethnic relationships between African American and European American children have long been an issue in American education. We know that children prefer peers of the same ethnicity as friends throughout childhood and adolescence. In their longitudinal study, Wilson and Rodkin (p. 1081) examined whether children with more segregated relationships have high social status within the classroom and whether segregation is a mechanism for change in social status throughout the school year. After surveying about 280 African American and 245 European American fourth and fifth graders from a range of economic backgrounds in 33 classrooms, they find that for children of both ethnic groups, having segregated relationships was associated with being more accepted by same-ethnicity peers and being less accepted by cross-ethnicity peers. The findings can inform educators.

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