Bakeman & Brownlee: Social rules governing object conflicts in toddlers and preschoolers

Bakeman, R., & Brownlee, J. R. (1982). Social rules governing object conflicts in toddlers and preschoolers. In Peer relationships and social skills in childhood (pp. 99–111). New York: Springer Verlag.

I’ve seen this article quoted over and over again as one of the first serious studies on ownership in children. I finally was able to read it, and I am very impressed both by the empirical study and the theoretical reflections.

On the theoretical level, the authors hypothesize that young children are capable of developing rules to regulate interaction with their peers, “as a consequence of a fundamental human propensity to regulate social interaction in a ruleful manner”. They say children do this “not as a result of cultural intervention.” What they seem to mean is not that rules are a natural phenomenon developed outside of culture, but that children tend to develop rules spontaneously, independent of explicit adult teaching. I believe that the authors would accept the proposition that rules are developed in the context of peer-culture. The important point Bakeman and Brownlee are making is that normativity is present in human interaction very early (during the second year of life).

The authors see possession episodes (interactions in which a child tries to take an object from another child) as a privileged source to obtain examples of early rules. We know that 18 month-olds already use the possessive “mine” in the context of their frequent possession struggles. Such disputes are often the occasion of adult intervention and rule stating. For all these reasons, possession is “the place” where one should look for children’s first rules.

In their empirical work with possession episodes, the researchers focus on two types of data: the rate of success by object takers and the rate of resistance attempts by object holders.

The main finding of this study is that prior possession influences the outcome of possession episodes. If a taker has had prior possession of the object, then her take attempt is more likely to succeed. The outcome of possession episodes among children in the second, third, and fourth year of life is not simply a matter of individual power, but can be at least partly explained by reference to the prior possession rule. The researchers also found that one year olds are as likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession as not, while three year olds were less likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession. This suggests that among the three year olds the prior possession claim may have been recognized by both children, at least at a point sufficiently early in the taking so that active resistance was less likely.

However, rule observance is not the only possible explanation for children’s behavior. Perhaps if a child has played with a toy recently, she is more likely to prefer that toy to others and hence to expend more effort in its recovery. Other children might eventually acquiesce to this more vigorous onslaught, what the authors call the ”vigor of desire.” Later, children may come to resist the prior possessing taker less, not because they have accepted a social rule, but only because they have learned about the negative consequences associated with this situation.

The authors, then, admit that there is no definitive way to decide between a “social learning” and a “shared rule” interpretation of the facts, especially in the one-year-olds. The situation is somewhat less ambivalent in the three-year-olds, because they are less likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession independently of their dominance, therefore they do not seem to be simply avoiding conflict. More importantly, the authors also claim that the difference between the two interpretations may be more apparent than real. I agree with this. The fact that children resist less when the taker is a prior possessor might reflect both a tendency to avoid conflict and a spontaneous way of regulating peer interaction. In other words, what we are dealing with here are rules at their very birth.

At the end of the article there are a couple of beautiful paragraphs that clearly express the authors’ outlook: “Young children are neither nasty brutes who must have rules imposed upon them nor noble savages who come with a built-in sense of equity; rather, they are adaptive, socially sensitive organisms trying to get along in a social world full of conflicting needs and limited resources. They may have a far greater capacity for ruleful regulation of their social affairs than we usually grant them, a capacity which only careful observations of young children playing with their age-mates is likely to reveal.”

Bakeman and Brwonlee are pioneers. Apparently they are the first who studied the prior possession rule in children. I used to think that Hildy Ross was the first. The findings are the same: even 18 month old toddlers seem to observe a basic version of the prior possession rule.

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