Parents cajole their children to always tell the truth, overlooking the fact that flattery – along with showing modesty, agreeing with another’s views and telling white lies – is an important social skill that social psychologists dub “ingratiation behaviour.”
Kang Lee, professor and director of the Institute of Child Study at OISE, has been conducting some of the first studies of the emergence of flattery in children. It is a natural area of interest for Lee, who has been researching the development of lie-telling in children for the past decade. In a study published in Developmental Science, Lee and his colleague Genyue Fu of Zhejiang Normal University in China reveal much about when and how children first use flattery. They asked a group of preschool children ages 3 to 6 to rate drawings by children and adults they knew, as well as strangers. The preschoolers judged the artwork both when the artist was present, and when he or she was absent. The three-year-olds were completely honest, and remained consistent in their ratings; it didn’t matter who drew it, or whether the person was in the room. Five- and six-year-olds gave more flattering ratings when the artist was in front of them. They flattered both strangers and those they knew (although familiar people got a higher dose of praise). Among the four-year-olds, half the group displayed flattery while the other half did not. This supports the idea that age four is a key transitional period in children’s social understanding of the world.
Lee suggests adults flatter for two reasons. It can be to show gratitude for some positive action in the past. As well, when they’re meeting someone for first time – someone who may turn out to be important for their advancement down the road – flattery is also used as an investment for future favourable treatment from the person. “We don’t know which the child is doing,” says Lee. However, the fact that the older children flattered strangers as well as familiar people suggests “they are thinking ahead, they are making these little social investments for future benefits.”