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When does our acknowledgment of the social contract really begin? When do young children first display an understanding of their social world? When and why do they begin to grasp that other people have feelings and thoughts like their own, yet different? In this pathbreaking work, Judy Dunn explores several aspects of the early process of social discovery: children’s recognition of the feelings of others, their ability to interpret and anticipate the behavior and relationships of others, and their comprehension of the prohibitions and accepted practices of their world.
Dunn’s work brings into focus an apparent paradox in our current view of the very young child’s social understanding. Whereas research on infancy reveals that babies are born with a predisposition to learn about other people, and appear sensitive to the emotions and behavior of others, experimental studies suggest that children of three, four, and five years of age have difficulty gauging the feelings, intentions, and perceptions of others. Why should this social intelligence—which might be expected to be high on the developmental agenda—proceed so slowly? Is the social understanding of young children really so limited? Dunn pursues answers to these questions through close observation of children in their homes, in the complex social world of the family; her findings suggest a sophistication that has not yet been appreciated or documented.
The Beginnings of Social Understanding draws upon observations and analyses from three longitudinal studies of children during the transition from infancy to childhood, examining children’s disputes, jokes, play, their questions and narratives about others. The book demonstrates children’s increasing subtlety as members of a cultural world, and argues that emotional relationships and family discourse play crucial roles in the development of this understanding. Dunn breaks through traditional notions of child development as she sets forth a refreshingly original perspective from which to view the social potential of children.