Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Socialization Processes

  • Joan GrusecEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2399-1



Socialization refers to the ways in which new members of a group are assisted by older, more experienced, members to learn the values, attitudes, and appropriate behaviors of the group.


Whenever they move into a new group, humans need to learn what is appropriate behavior in that group. This process of socialization goes on throughout the lifespan: Children learn how to behave in the home, at school, and while interacting with peers. As they become adolescents and adults, they move into new school settings and the workplace. As well they have to learn how to be marital partners, parents, and how, finally, to behave as an older member of society.

Most research has focused on socialization during childhood, as well as on the role of parents in that socialization. The focus on children reflects the fact that so much must be learned in this context, including regulation of emotions such as distress and anger, social competence, not harming others, helping others, and understanding the perspective of others. The focus on parents reflects the fact that parents are biologically prepared to care for their offspring and that they are generally assigned the task by society. This entry will deal with children and parents, although it should be noted that other agents of socialization include teachers, peers, and siblings, where the same processes are operating.

Features of Socialization in Childhood

The Role of the Child

Socialization is not a one-way street, with the direction from parent to child. Children also influence their parents (Kuczynski and De Mol 2015). Thus it is not infrequently found that children’s behavior produces change in the socializer’s behavior. The change can be of either a positive or negative nature. A child’s disobedience may lead to anger on the part of the parent, with that anger only serving to increase the disobedience. Or the disobedience may lead to a reconsideration of socialization strategies and choice of one that has a better chance of succeeding. The child’s active role is reflected as well in the fact that children do not accept the teachings of the socializing agent as a whole. Values are not transmitted but, rather, are constructed as the child weighs a variety of choices (Bandura 1977). As children experience the negative impact of hurtful behavior on themselves, for example, they develop a sense of morality that includes not hurting others. As another example, children can change the values of their parents as they come in contact with other agents of socialization and other influences (Kuczynski and De Mol 2015).

The bidirectional nature of socialization is also evident in the fact that a given approach to socialization is not effective for every child. Effectiveness depends on a number of variables including the child’s sex, age, temperament, mood, nature of the act, and previous history with the socializing agent (Grusec and Goodnow 1994). Fearful children, for example, are more likely to be negatively impacted by harsh parenting than are fearless ones (Bates and Pettit 2015). As other examples, reasons for why a particular behavior is unacceptable must be matched with the cognitive abilities of the child, and the negative impact of physical punishment is lessened in countries where this form of punishment is more normative (Lansford et al. 2005).

Related to the fact that individual differences alter the impact of an intervention is the fact that a child’s genetic makeup interacts with socialization experiences to produce different outcomes. As one example, Caspi et al. (2003) showed that child maltreatment was associated with subsequent depression, but only in individuals who had a short allele of the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene.

The Nature of Values

Values can be placed in two major categories. Intrinsic values include aspirations for personal growth, meaningful relationships, social responsibility, and physical health. Extrinsic values include financial success, physical attractiveness, and social recognition. Individuals who rate themselves higher on intrinsic values report greater feelings of psychological well-being than those who rate themselves higher on extrinsic values (Kasser and Ryan 1996). One explanation for this result is that people need to feel their behavior is self-determined rather than directed by others. Because extrinsic values depend on the reactions and evaluations of others they run counter to this basic need (Ryan and Deci 2000, 2017).

Schwartz (1992) has distinguished between self-transcendence and self-enhancement values. The former include tolerance, the protection of people and nature, and the preservation and enhancement of others. Self-enhancement values include status, prestige, control over people and resources, and personal success. The two sets of values are negatively correlated, with self-transcendence values generally valued more highly in many different countries.

Intuitive Morality

There is a substantial body of evidence that babies have a basic awareness of prosocial and moral values, that is, of concern for others and dislike of harm to others (Hamlin 2013; Warneken and Tomasello 2015). As early as the first year of life infants show concern when others are distressed. As an example, they show pupil dilation, an indication of tension, when they see someone who needs help, with the tension reduced when help is received (Hepach et al. 2012). Infants at 6 months of age look longer at and are more likely to reach out to a puppet who helps another puppet trying to climb a hill than they look at and reach out to one who pushes the climber down the hill (Hamlin and Wynn 2011). This apparently innate predisposition is said to stem from ecological conditions faced by our ancestors that required collaboration in order to survive (Warneken and Tomasello 2015). Cooperative behavior, therefore, increased reproductive fitness. Moreover, cooperative behavior often required curbing selfish goals or even personal sacrifice, thereby facilitating the development of a moral sense, that is, a sense of what is right or proper. The fact that babies come equipped with prosocial tendencies, however, does not negate the central role of socialization which can shape those tendencies in a multiple set of directions.

Domains of Socialization

Adults socialize children in a variety of ways. Building on the work of Bugental (2000), Grusec and Davidov (2010) proposed five domains or contexts in which parenting could occur. Each domain involves a different need on the part of the child, a different relationship between parent and child, and different kinds of parenting action. The first two domains, protection and reciprocity, include the building of a caring and responsive relationship between parent and child. This relationship facilitates the acquisition of specific values that are learned in the remaining domains – control, guided learning, and observational learning/group participation.

With respect to the protection domain, humans have evolved to seek a safe haven and nurturing when they are in distress or danger. In turn, parents have evolved to provide that safe haven. Thus the child’s attachment system and the adult’s caregiving system are complementary and have evolved in parallel. When either system is activated child and caregiver move closer together so that protection is enhanced (Bowlby 1969/1982). When the system is not activated children can explore their world, knowing that they have a secure base to which they can return.

Appropriate responses to children’s distress change with age. Holding is suitable for a baby. Young children may profit from a discussion of emotions. Ultimately the goal is to teach children how to cope with distress on their own. “Not-too-nice parenting” (Bates and Petit 2015) is one way in which this is accomplished. In this approach to socialization, parents are not excessively sensitive and responsive (see, for example, Degnan et al. 2008), and they respond to children’s emotions by listening, accepting, querying, and complying rather than engaging in overindulgent helping and comforting or even simple distraction (Morris et al. 2011).

One important outcome of caregiver reactions to children’s distress is the development of behavior that is helpful and comforting to others. Parents who try to help their children alleviate feelings of distress, or who help them find ways to problem solve and deal with challenging issues, facilitate children’s coping with their own emotions, including the empathic distress they feel for others. In this way, children are able to act prosocially in response to the negative emotions of others rather than being overwhelmed and immobilized by their own distress (Eisenberg 2010). Toddlers of mothers who were supportive were found to comfort an adult who had “accidentally” hurt herself by, for example, patting her or getting the mother’s attention. Children with mothers who were less supportive tended to go to the mother, touch her, hold their arms out to be picked up, or buried their heads in her lap (Eisenberg et al. in press).

The next domain, reciprocity, emerges from the human tendency to reciprocate favors, a characteristic that, like protection, contributes to survival and reproductive success (Trevarthen et al. 1999). Reciprocity occurs not only with kin but with unrelated individuals as well. In this domain, the relationship is one of equality where children have an equal say in how the interaction will proceed. When parents respond to their children’s reasonable requests they set up conditions where their children, in turn, will respond to their parents’ (reasonable) requests. Most importantly, this compliance is willingly given rather than a result of parental pressure. Play is one example of a reciprocal interaction, provided socializing agents refrain from assuming a didactic role. When play is jointly managed, and there is shared positive affect between adult and child, children show higher levels of peer competence and prosocial behavior as well as less antisocial behavior (for example, Lindsey et al. 2010).

In the control domain, children experience consequences in the form of discipline or punishment for antisocial actions and reward for prosocial actions. Additionally, they need to internalize the values associated with those actions, that is, believe that those actions are intrinsically motivated or inherently correct. Otherwise, they would have to be under constant surveillance to make sure they behaved in accord with societal rules and regulations. Researchers have demonstrated that internalization is most likely to be achieved when agents of socialization use a combination of punishment and reasoning, make rules clear, and enforce them consistently (Grusec and Goodnow 1994). Additionally, the punishment must be just sufficient to capture the child’s attention and just sufficient to motivate a change in behavior. Otherwise, positive action can be attributed to external pressure rather an understanding of why one particular action is more appropriate or more moral than another (Grusec and Goodnow 1994; Grusec and Davidov in press). In the former case not only is compliance with societal dictates not given willingly, but it can lead to reactance, that is, a desire to do the opposite of what is required. Reactance occurs because of the human need for autonomy or choice which is thwarted when too much external pressure is applied (Ryan and Deci 2017). Also to be noted is that discipline is most effective when it is administered by parents who have a positive and warm relationship with their children (Grusec and Goodnow 1994).

Punishment involves a variety of consequences, including verbal disapproval, withdrawal of love, withdrawal of material rewards and privileges, time-out, and corporal punishment. Considerable debate has centered around the question of whether corporal punishment in the form of spanking or hitting on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand is harmful (let alone ineffective). In a review of a considerable body of research, Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor (2016) reported strong evidence that corporal punishment is not only associated with, but leads to, children’s externalizing problems.

Socialization in the control domain has its challenges. For example, it often occurs in the context of high levels of arousal on the part of both child and parent. When parent and child are angry it can be difficult for the parent to function effectively or for the child to listen and accept. The guided learning and observational learning domains present fewer of these sorts of challenges.

Socialization in the guided learning domain is important because humans have limited physical prowess and so, in order to survive, they must rely on the learning of intellectual skills. The human capacity for language allows for the teaching of complex skills and the relatively long period of dependence the young have on their parents allows time for this teaching. In this domain, the relationship is one between teacher and student. Importantly, teaching must be done within the child’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978), so that teachers help children solve problems they are not quite ready to solve independently, with constant alterations to match the child’s changing skill level. Eventually, a shared understanding is achieved and the particular lesson is said to be internalized. The process is an interactive one, with discussion and exchange of views leading to better mastery of the task (Haden et al. 2001). In this domain, children can learn about values and associated actions, as well as about the nature of emotions and how to express and manage them (Denham et al. 2015).

Guided learning is an important element in moral development. Even very young children engage in conversations about moral values with their parents, often taking the lead in these conversations (Wright and Bartsch 2008). The most successful conversations are those where parents elicit their children’s opinion and check for understanding, as well as being supportive and not negative (Walker et al. 2000). Parents who are high in generativity, who see the training of future generations as an important part of their functioning, are particularly likely to engage in guided learning, that is, story-telling that deals with suffering, growth, and kindness of others (McAdams 2004).

Finally, the group participation domain includes modeling of others’ behavior as well as participation in positive social behavior with other group members. Adoption and valuing of group practices and symbols is important from an evolutionary perspective because it identifies the individual as a member of the in-group, where good treatment is more likely (Brewer and Gardner 1996). These practices are very frequently learned through observation of others, a procedure Bandura and Walters (1963) identified as the basic form of human learning. Through watching others, children learn values and how to behave (or not to behave) in accord with those values. Socializing agents, in turn, try to control the models to which their children are exposed by selecting the neighborhoods in which they live, monitoring their access to media, and encouraging their interaction with peers whose values they consider appropriate.

As well as learning about appropriate behavior through watching others, children also learn it from engaging in routines and rituals. Examples of routines are helping out around the house or engaging in value-related activities such as volunteer work. Social conventions such as ways of dressing and table manners are also carried out in a routine way so that, with repetition, they come to be viewed simply as the way things must be done. Rituals are activities such as holiday celebrations or family get-togethers that reflect group membership and values, and thereby enhance feelings of being part of the group and engaging in activities with the group.


Effective socialization involves both a positive relationship with the agent of socialization as well as the learning of specific values and standards of behavior. There is no one effective way in which to help children become well-functioning members of their social group. Parents act as protectors, playmates, disciplinarians, teachers, and fellow group members and need to act in accord with that particular role. Whichever role they need to assume depends on sensitivity to the child’s current state.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina - BeaufortBlufftonUSA