Three dimensions of institutional experience at 3 years of age

At some point I will write extensively in this blog about one of my central tenets: children’s everyday social experience is best understood when analyzed into three institutional dimensions that I call: inclusion, hierarchy and reciprocity.

For the time being, here is a little example that shows how these three dimensions are present in my son’s everyday interactions.

  1. Inclusion: Starting at about 3 years of age, whenever I announce that I am going to do something (go shopping, eat some yogurt, cook, take a nap, etc.) he usually replies “me too” (“yo también”), “I’ll go with you” (“te acompaño”) or “Let me help you” (“te ayudo”). He is thereby including himself in a group (formed by two or more people); he is inserting himself, through speech, within an “us”, and assumes that the activity in question is not performed by me and by him at the same time but by a collective formed by both of us. By the way: Michael Tomasello talks a lot about this specifically human ability to do things together, that is, to cooperate (Tomasello, 2009). At about the same age he starts talking about his friends. For example he refers to his cousin F. by saying “mío amigo” (“my friend”); he also mentions frequently that “F. is my friend”. When he’s about to leave for kindergarten he mentions he wants to meet his friends to play (“voy a jugar con míos amigos”). To sum up: he acknowledges that there is a sub-group of friends within the larger group of human beings; he shares with his friends a type of experience (peer play) that is different from what he does with his older sister, adults, etc. He includes himself in this proto-community. At about 3 years and 4 months he says that his music teacher, Maxi, is my friend, because “we both have a beard”.
  2. Hierarchy: There is also a hierarchic dimension in children’s everyday experience. L. differentiates between grown-ups and kids (“grandes” and “chicos”) in his speech; he also knows that grown-ups are entitled to a number of things from which kids are excluded (manipulating dangerous objects such as pots with boiling water or oil, drinking wine, driving, giving orders to other kids, staying up late, etc.) And it is clear, in many situations, that he would like to be a grown up (he says he’s “big”; he engages in pretend play in which he’s a grown-up).
  3. Reciprocity: this dimension of institutional life is obviously present in many everyday episodes, both involving adults and other children. In this blog, we have discussed object trading and give-and-take games, and will continue to provide similar examples. We might also mention that reciprocity is strongly embedded in linguistic practices and language games such as mutual greeting, thanking and welcoming, etc., in which the participants’ roles are symmetrical and interchangeable.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. Human Resource Management (Vol. 49, p. 206). MIT Press.


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