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Preschoolers conform to fit in

What makes preschoolers eat their veggies? Raise their hand? Wait their turn? “Because I say so” is a common refrain for many parents. But when it comes to getting kids to behave, recent research suggests that the voice of adult authority isn't the only thing that matters. Around age three, fitting in with the group starts to count big too.

That’s the finding of a new study by Duke University researchers showing that, by their third birthday, children are more likely to go along with what others say or do for the sake of following the crowd, rather than acting out of a desire to kowtow to authority or heed that person’s preferences per se.

“Every culture has its do’s and don’ts,” said first author Leon Li, a doctoral student in psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

We’re not born knowing what to say when someone sneezes, the right and wrong time to wear a hat, or that we should eat with a fork and not with our hands. But most of us begin to pick up on these unwritten social rules when we are very young, and quickly figure out when and how to follow them.

The question, Li said, is what makes young children “behave”? What propels a 3-year-old to use their quiet voice when they’d rather sing and shout? What’s really going on when a person covers their cough and a preschooler follows suit, against their own inclination?

Perhaps children this age are not really trying to conform to the accepted way of doing things, some have suggested, as much as they are trying to show regard for adults by doing what they say. Or the child’s copycat behavior could be rooted in a desire to feel bonded with that person.

To better understand what motivates preschoolers to fall in line, the researchers conducted a study in the lab of professor Michael Tomasello at Duke, where Li and Duke undergraduate Bari Britvan invited 3.5-year-olds to help set up for a pretend tea party.

Each of the 104 children was given a blue sticker to wear at the start of the study, and told that the people with that color sticker were part of the same team.