Opinion: The Importance Of Highlighting Social Norms (And Not Socially Unacceptable Behaviours)

Many parents like to pick out examples from every day life and use them to help teach their child things like right from wrong, and what types of behaviours and actions are acceptable and what are not. It seems like such a simple and logical thing to do, but it’s a surprisingly easy thing to get wrong. Why? Well, there are three reasons for this. These are signalling, skewing and permission-giving. Together, these reasons can go a long way to explaining why, despite their parents best efforts, some children end up exhibiting socially unacceptable behaviours.

So what do I mean by signally, skewing and permission-giving? Well, let’s start with the first one: signalling. Signalling is the message you send your child with your words and actions, and it’s one of the important ways that children learn what’s acceptable, and what isn’t, within the social group in which they are being raised. It seems straight-forward, but it’s more complicated than you might think. This is because the signal we think we’re sending is often not the signal that our children receive. Why? Quite simply because their brains work differently than ours. This is because they focus less on the content of our words and more on the context and our associated actions. This means that if there’s a conflict between what you’re saying and that way that you’re saying it, they’ll get the latter message and not the former.

A great example of this comes when you highlight the bad behaviour of others. If you say to a child: Look what that person’s doing, aren’t they bad? The chances are the message your child will receive isn’t ‘that’s a bad behaviour and I shouldn’t do it’, but rather ‘that’s the type of behaviour that gets my parents attention!’ This is particularly true if you only ever focus on bad behaviours that you see around you and never on good behaviour because your child learns that good behaviours are ignored and only bad ones are rewarded with attention. It seems perverse to us adults, but to children, who crave attention above almost anything else, it’s perfectly logical: you do whatever it is that’s most likely to get you the attention you desire.

The second issue is skewing and is related to signalling. Skewing is where you give a false impression of what is a social norm and what isn’t. A social norm is a behaviour that is acceptable, or even valued, within a specific social group, and children learn what their own personal social norms are by observing the frequency by which they encounter different actions and behaviours from those around them. That all seems straight-forward, but the trouble with this is that, easily distracted as they are, children are very imperfect samplers of the behaviour of others. As a result, they usually only notice it when it’s highlighted to them by others, and particularly by adults. Thus, if the adults around children only focus on pointing out bad behaviours, and not good ones, this greatly skews the range and types of behaviours a child is being made aware of, and it means that when they are forming their mental images of what is socially normal, they end up incorrectly concluding that since every one else is apparently behaving badly, then that is the way that they too should behave.

The final issue is permission-giving, and it’s more about the meta-messages that children receive rather than the actual messages. What’s a meta-message? Well, it’s a message about any messages they receive and it will determine how they will interpret it. It’s slightly complicated, and the best way to explain it is probably with an example. If you point out the bad behaviour of someone else, your child might get the message that it’s something you disapprove of, but if they don’t see that behaviour being punished, or even worse if they see it getting rewarded, then they’ll learn that your disapproval can be ignored because it has no associated negative consequence. The basic idea here is that if children don’t see a behaviour as having negative consequences, then they won’t learn that it’s wrong. In fact, permission-giving goes even further than this. If they perceive that lots of other people are acting in a specific way without getting punished, children (and adults), they will conclude that they’re losing out by not acting in the same way as everyone else, and this, they feel, gives them permission to act in a similar way.

The trouble with permission-giving is that this meta-message can come not just from you, but from almost anywhere, and the media is often one of the strongest suppliers of bad permission-giving messages. For example, if they show footage of lots of people looting during a riot without being arrested, a surprisingly large number of otherwise sensible people watching it will think: Well, they’re getting away with it and getting lots of cool stuff for free, so why aren’t I out there getting my share too? Similarly, if there’s a news story about how many people aren’t paying their taxes, rather than encouraging these people to pay up, it actually encourages more people not to pay! Now, I know children aren’t usually tax-payers (or tax-dodgers for that matter!), but this is what permission-giving does to perfectly sensible adults, so you can imagine the impact it can have on children, armed as they are with less well-developed critical thinking skills.

So, what does all this mean? Well, it means that if you continually focus on pointing out negative behaviours in others, and your child doesn’t see these behaviours being punished – or worse sees them being rewarded – then they will take home three related messages:

  1. Negative behaviour will get me the attention I crave, because that’s what the adults in my life focus on.
  2. Negative behaviours are the social norm, because that’s all that’s being pointed out.
  3. Negative behaviours don’t have consequences, and since everyone else is apparently doing them and getting away with it (or even getting rewarded for it), I should do it to, or I’ll be losing out.

These are clearly not messages you want to be sending your child, so how can you avoid doing it? Well, it’s quite straight-forward: don’t continually highlight undesirable behaviours! Instead, focus on highlighting the socially acceptable or positive behaviours that you’d want your child to learn as being the norm within your social circle.  If you are going to point out negative behaviours (and you shouldn’t do this too frequently), make sure you explain quite clearly why it’s unacceptable, and what consequences the person is likely to face as a result. This will help a great deal with signalling and skewing, but it won’t necessarily deal with permission-giving. This is because permission-giving can come from almost anywhere, and it can be as simple as a badly worded sign or newspaper article. So how do you deal with it? The best way is probably to sit down with your child and explain that despite what they may perceive from media reports, just because something is being reported, it doesn’t mean it’s the norm. In fact, despite the way it’s being reported, news is often only news because it unusual and not because it’s a social norm.

Sometimes it can be as simple as reframing the numbers being presented by the media to show that what is being reported is not a norm, but a negative outlier. For a great example of this, let’s turn back to the tax-paying, or rather lack of tax-paying, example mentioned above. If there’s a report that ten percent of people don’t pay their taxes, then this encourages others not to pay because they are left thinking that these people are getting away with it (since how many people do you actually know who have been done for not paying their taxes?). However, if you reframe this as ninety percent of people pay their taxes on time and in full, then this highlights the fact that those ten percent of non-payers are outside the social norm, providing a counter pressure to pay up on time (since most people will want to be doing what most others are doing, despite the perceived advantages of dodging their taxes). If you don’t believe that it’s quite this simple then let me tell you about a little experiment. The UK tax service (known as HMRC) wanted to work out how to get more people to pay their taxes on time, so they sent out various letters with various threats and incentives, but the one that worked the best simply stated: the great majority of people in [Insert recipients local area here] pay their taxes on time. There’s no threat of action here, and not even a request for payment: they are simply pointing out what is the social norm amongst the recalcitrant tax-payers neighbours, but it’s enough to reframe the situation, and so the likelihood that the person receiving the letter will pay up on time.

So how do you get this to work with kids? Well, the simplest way to do this is to get them to think about the actual numbers behind anything they hear in the media, and get them to automatically reframe it in terms of a positive message rather than a negative one, so that they see what the social norm really is rather than the one that the meta-message is inadvertently sending them. You can start this by simply going over media stories with them and pointing out how numbers can be reframed. For example, if you see a story about one in ten children being involved in petty crime, point out that this means that nine out of ten are not. If you see a story that says that 20% of teenagers under the age of sixteen have tried drugs, point out that this means that eighty percent have not. If you see a story that says that one-third of teenagers are regularly having sex, point out that this means that two-thirds aren’t. Once they get the hang of this, you can get them to pick out the stories themselves, and show you how they could reframe the numbers behind the headlines, and so the messages that they are receiving from the stories.

You can also get them to reframe numbers in terms of their own experiences to see if they are reliable.  A nice example of this is a headline that might read: one in seven people on the planet are on Facebook. That makes it seem really popular, but is it actually true? Well, it all depends on how they identify their users. If it’s simply based on the number of Facebook accounts, then this is going to overstate its popularity, and potentially overstate it quite dramatically. Why? It’s quite simple: it doesn’t take into account the fact that people can have more than one account. If you have children who are old enough to use social media, I’m sure they’ll know at least one, and potentially several, people who have more than one Facebook account – and a small proportion of people will have many different Facebook accounts (if you don’t believe me, then just watch an episode of the TV series Catfish!). The reasons for this are irrelevant here (even though they can be quite interesting in their own right), but the important lesson here is how to dissect the numbers to get to something that’s closer to the actual truth: that Facebook is almost certainly less popular than the headline figure suggests.

It might seem odd at first to sit down with your child and discuss media stories in this way, but it’s by far the best way for them to learn how to interpret them in a way that doesn’t lead to children receiving unintended (at least I really hope they’re unintended!) meta-messages about what behaviours and actions are socially acceptable. Do it often enough with them, and preferably before they reach their teenage years,and it should become second nature to them, giving them a barrier that will help them stay on a positive path rather than getting dragged into socially unacceptable behaviours by the many permission-giving messages that they are bombarded with each and every day.

Further Reading

If you wish to find out more about any of the above subjects, one of the best sources of information is a book called Your Children Are Listening by Jim Taylor. It provides a great introduction to the way we send messages (both accidentally and on purpose) to our children through our words and actions, and, in our opinion, it should be a must-read for all parents. UK readers can purchase it from here, while USA-based readers can purchase it from here.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.

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