IELTS online course Writing Task 2

How we learn to behave

  • A woman turns off her cell phone as she enters a movie theater.
  • A driver eats a candy bar and puts the paper wrapper in the ashtray.
  • A couple decides to have a baby.

Being polite, neat, and family-oriented are characteristics of the well-socialized American. Socialization is the process of learning how to behave in the society we live in. For societies to exist, there must be some organized way of teaching the members what is expected of them and how they are to behave. Through socialization, the infant develops into a person like one of those describe above.

Every society tries to socialize its members. The task is performed by several groups and institutions (called socializing agents). The family, the school, and the peer group (that is, people of the same age) are the most important socializing agents. Of these, the family is the most important, especially during the first few years of life. A review of various studies of families has concluded that warm, supportive, moderately strict family environments usually produce happy and well-behaved children; and that cold, rigid, and overly strict families tend to cause youngsters to become rebellious, resentful, and secure (Gecas 1981).

How, then, do families and other socializing agents teach children how to behave? Two important ways are sanctions (rewards and punishments) and by modeling.

Rewards and punishments

Sanctions are consequences following a behavior that influence whether the behavior will be repeated. Positive sanctions mean that the behavior is followed by something that is a reward. If a child asks a parent “May I have some gum please?” and the parents gives the child some gum, the child learns that saying “please” at the end of a request results in getting what he asked for. Negative sanctions (also known as punishments) mean that something bad happens after a behavior occurs. When a child says “Gimme some gum” and the parent says “No gum until you learn to ask politely” and does not give the child the gum, the child learns that it is not a good idea to speak this way because he does not get what he wants.


Modeling refers to learning by watching the behavior of others – especially parents – and copying that behavior. Modeling influences both positive and negative behavior. For example, children who are respectful to elderly people have probably seen their parents do things such as helping older people on trains and buses. On the other hand, children whose parents are alcoholics are more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves.

Differences across cultures 

It is easy to assume that every culture socializes children in the same way. Studies of other cultures, however, show that children are socialized differently depending on the culture they are brought up in.

A study of 6- to 11-year-old children in six farming communities in the United States, Kenya, Okinawa, northern India, the Philippines, and Mexico is a good example of these studies. Beatrice and John Whiting (1975) found a big difference between the types of household chores that children were expected to do in these cultures. More importantly, they found that parental expectations about work around the house were an important part of children’s socialization. Where children were expected to take care of other younger children and do chores that helped the whole household (as in the Kenya and Mexican community studied), they quickly learned to be responsible and caring toward others. In communities like the one studied in the United States, where children were only expected to do chores such as cleaning their rooms and picking up toys, they were less likely to develop these traits at an early age. Of course, not every family in a particular culture socializes their children in exactly the same way – and this would be true of expectations about household chores also. Nevertheless, many cross-cultural differences in socialization have been identified by researchers.

Other evidence of these differences in socialization practices comes from a study of how traditional Vietnamese and Chinese socialize their children. In these families, the needs of the group are seen as more important the the needs of the individual, and so children learn that their first responsibility is to their parents rather than to themselves. For example, many children work hard at school so that their parents will be proud of them.

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