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The process by which a person learns to conform individual behavior and responses to the norms and values of society.

Socialization is a lifelong process that begins during infancy in the complex interaction between parent and child. As parents respond to a baby's physical requirements for food and shelter, they are also beginning to teach the baby what to expect from their environment and how to communicate their needs. The action-reaction cycle of smiling, cooing, and touching is a child's earliest interaction with "society." It is believed that these early interactions during infancy play a major role

As children are socialized, they learn which behaviors are acceptable and which are unacceptable. Boys are often encouraged to imitate their fathers' activities, as this boy is doing. (David Frazier. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

in future social adjustment. Consistent, responsive care helps lead to healthy relationships with others and normal personal development. Caretakers who neglect an infant's needs or otherwise stifle early attempts at communication can cause serious damage to the child's future social interactions.

The family is the most influential socialization force. Parents, grandparents, and siblings all transmit to infants and young children what they consider to be important values, behavior, skills, and attitudes. Household rules govern behavior, interpersonal behavior serves as a model for interactions with outside people, and socially valued qualities such as generosity and caring are learned through example within the home and in the culture. As children grow and interact more with the environment outside the family home, others begin to play important roles in the socialization process. Friends, institutions such as church and school, the media (particularly television) and co-workers all become important factors in shaping a person's attitudes and behavior.

Researchers have theorized that socialization is a complex process that involves both personal and environmental factors. For example, studies of aggressive tendencies in children have pointed out that certain children are more influenced than others when exposed to television violence or aggressive behavior by authority figures in the home. Some blind and deaf children display aggressive behavior such as stamping feet or yelling even though they have never had the opportunity to see or hear such displays of temper. Thus, it has been concluded that genetic factors must also be considered part of the socialization process.

Studies of sex-type models also point to this complex interaction between environmental and genetic factors. While many researchers believe that most of the stereotypical differences between boys and girls are invalid, some do appear significant. For example, boys tend to perform better on tests involving spatial relationships, and girls tend to score better on tests involving verbal skills. There is such an overlap among boys and girls, even on these tests, that it would be impossible to predict the scores of an individual boy or girl. It is believed, however, that perceived differences often affect the behavior of one of the most influential socialization forces of children—teachers. Some teachers reinforce the male image of dominance and independence by responding more to boys and demanding more from them in the classroom. Girls are often rewarded for passive, less demanding behavior. Similarly, some parents respond differently to sons and daughters, encouraging stereotypical behavior and traditionally male or female hobbies and careers. Media portrayals of one-dimensional characters can also perpetuate sex role stereotypes.

Further Reading

Clark, John, ed. The Mind: Into the Inner World. New York Torstar Books, 1986.

Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory