How children make an impression with words

Ssocialization starts early. However, it does not simply mean adaptation, but also lays the foundation for being able to intervene in social events: only those who know the rules can use them to their own advantage. Whether in family, school or work, one of the most important lessons is that you get to know the applicable evaluation criteria and thereby learn, among other things, to present yourself well in their light. This is easier if you can transfer learning successes from one context to another.

The recently published study by a French sociologist who observed 28 children in a Paris day care center for several weeks shows that this can already be observed in very early phases. At this age, the children are still in the middle of language acquisition, so that the development of symbolic skills and their use in social contact can be examined.

The day-care center is an interesting field of research because it brings children from different backgrounds together in a setting that reduces external influences. Socio-economic differences are leveled out, for example, by the communism that usually applies to material endowments: no one brings their own toys with them, and the monopolistic appropriation of existing objects is opposed. The staff is also reluctant to intervene because they interpret their task as care, not as education.

Every child knows that you get ahead with language

Despite their rudimentary language skills, many children have already learned that language can be used to get ahead – especially in order to involve others in their own projects. This starts with addressing the adults by name. Children who, due to their age or family background, still have few symbolic resources are content with unspecific signals or a general “monsieur” when they need help. On the other hand, children from academic families in particular learn remarkably quickly that naming their first names gets their attention more quickly and reliably.

This also applies to polite phrases, which are still the exception at this age – the researcher noted the word “please” only eleven times, which was used almost exclusively by children from the middle class. The children usually use polite phrases in a highly ritualized form. For example, the researcher describes a situation in which he was in the way of the children climbing the stairs and a girl pushed past him with “Excuse me, Madame!” because she had heard exactly this phrase in her family.

Knowledge has never been more valuable

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But language in the children’s group is not only used to get others to act in their own interest. It is also used to influence the perception of objects and situations in such a way that something comes off for oneself. Since material status symbols are largely excluded, the children fall back on symbolic currencies. These include designations for objects: It happens time and again that a child takes an object whose name is obviously familiar to an adult and gets the “official” confirmation that it is a pen, knife or trades a plate.

You actually learn something for life

Clever kids go so far as to borrow prestigious labels: a boy scribbles something on paper and asks if this is a sun, or a girl holds up a lump of dough and exclaims, “Rhino horn!” The children do not choose the reference points for their fictitious names at random, and in this way they naturally manage to garner benevolent praise from the adults. A more advanced variant consists in embellishing an object verbosely and thereby increasing its symbolic value: the pile of sand is then not just a cake, but a strawberry cake, and a tasty one at that, which the adults acting as a social “scaffold” are happy to confirm. Not surprisingly, children from privileged backgrounds do this better and make a stronger impression on caregivers.

Infants, then, are already busy engaging in practices of social distinction such as those described by Pierre Bourdieu and others for the adult world. A contribution to early childhood education can be seen in the fact that the day care center proves to be a socialization instance in which one actually learns something for life.


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