The playground sight of a group friends rejecting a lone child betrays an ugly side of human nature. An intriguing new cross-cultural study has examined the development of reasoning about social rejection in young children and teenagers, revealing a surprising level of sophistication.
Yoonjung Park and Melanie Killen found that by age ten, children in the USA and South Korea already consider rejecting a peer based on their nationality or gender to be morally worse than peer rejection based on the behavioural traits of aggressiveness or shyness. The children seem to recognise that people can be expected, to a certain extent, to modify their behaviour, but are unable (and shouldn’t be expected) to alter their gender or nationality.
The researchers presented 397 Korean children and 333 US children, aged 10 to 13, with fictional scenarios involving peer rejection and victimisation in different contexts (group rejection and one-on-one friendship rejection) and for different reasons (for their shy or aggressive behaviour, their nationality or their gender). The children were asked to say how acceptable each form of rejection was and to justify their answers.
The results were consistent with ‘social domain theory’ because the reasons the children gave depended on the context. The children tended to cite moral reasons (e.g. ‘he may get hurt in his mind’) when explaining their condemnation of peer rejection based on nationality and gender. By contrast, rejection based on behavioural traits (shyness or aggressiveness) was justified or condemned based on grounds of social-convention and personal choice. For example, one of the children answered that ‘if he [the fictional child doing the rejecting] doesn’t want to be friends with the kid, it’s okay. It’s his choice’; others referred to the disruption likely to be caused by an aggressive person entering the group.
Overall, the older children actually perceived peer rejection as more acceptable than the younger children, perhaps because children come to value autonomy and personal choice more as they get older. However, this increased acceptance was not true across all contexts. For example, rejection because of nationality was seen as less acceptable by older children.
There were few cultural differences. The exceptions were that the US kids were more willing to accept rejection of aggressive peers, perhaps because aggression is more rife in US society. The Korean kids, meanwhile, were more tolerant of rejection based on nationality. This might reflect the fact that the Seoul-based Korean sample were ethnically homogenous whereas the Washington DC-based US sample were more ethnically diverse.
Park and Killen called on future research to explore children’s reasoning about peer rejection in other cultures and to involve different contexts and reasons for rejection. ‘Drawing on findings regarding children’s social understanding, evaluation, and reasoning about peer rejection to design programmes to ameliorate the negative long-term consequences of peer rejection will go a long way towards reducing the social deviance and facilitating social tolerance and inclusion in multiple contexts and across cultures,’ they said.
Park, Y., and Killen, M. (2010). When is peer rejection justifiable? Children’s understanding across two cultures. Cognitive Development, 25 (3), 290-301 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2009.10.004