A couple of days ago I joined one of my friends to pick up his daughter at the kindergarten. This was the first time I was seeing her in close to two years; the last time I saw and carried her she was just about 4 months old. Of course, she didn’t remember me, so I had to find a way to charm myself into her favour. The first steps involved me smiling sheepishly, talking gently and offering my arms to her. She refused all the advances, despite the very hearty encouragement from her father.
We left the kindergarten and headed for a café, where my friend pulled out a lunch box filled with grapes. It was obviously something she loves very much. Still trying to get her attention, I took one of the grapes and offered it to her. She, as I suspected, refused. But then, something else happened that got me thinking about reciprocity and economic exchange. As I was trying to ingratiate myself in her favour without much success, her father gave her a grape to give to me. She collected the grape and passed it on. Then he gave me a grape to offer her; this time, she accepted it. From then on things went pretty smoothly.
What I took away from this has nothing to do with trust and child psychology, at least not directly. I realized that I just witnessed, from a child, one of the most cardinal things in human economic relations: reciprocity. At that moment, with that little girl, I realized that I was witnessing the early traces of that social characteristic of the human. I could not help but wonder – and this is the part where I need the help of child psychologists – when kids start putting a value to things, what values mean to them and how they relate to values.
Another friend’s daughter made her parents promise to get her a Spider-man cake for her third birthday. But all these were to change just shortly before the birthday. Sometime between the day she elicited the promise from her parents and shortly before her birthday she changed her mind. She had just joined a kindergarten, where she learnt about the differences between what a boy should want and what a girl should want.
She learnt that she liked pink – something she did not know until she joined the kindergarten. She also found out that she wanted to be a princess. Her mother started getting requests concerning pink dresses for princesses. Boys were supposed to be knights. In fact, one of her male friends was waving a sword, slicing the air, when I met him. Of course, her relationship with Spider-man changed; she wanted a princess cake instead. She had learnt that Spider-man is for boys and princess for girls.
This got me thinking about how children are socialised by each other. Someone mentioned to me that children are very serious conformists, and that kids always strive to be like their mates, never wanting to unduly stand out. How many kids have quickly forgotten languages they acquired while living abroad because they are afraid that their mates would make fun of their difference? How many kids have joined in making fun of other kids who look like they might not ‘belong’? Of course, prejudices that kids display are picked from adults; and it is presumable that the children who are the first to bring the idea of gender roles and differences into the kindergarten somehow got it from adults.
It is interesting to watch kids learn from their parents and from each other. But perhaps the most important thing is what one learns from watching them learn: the importance of socialisation, and of being social.