The First Agent of Socialization: Family

By Charlotte Nickerson, published August 30, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • The family is the first agent of socialization because they have first and greatest contact with the child. A child's socialization begins at birth and continues throughout his or her lifetime through the other agents of socialization, such as school, and mass media.
  • Children learn norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes through both. the family's behaviors and explicit messages.
  • Many factors, such as race, socioeconomic class, time period, and culture, can impact the structure of families and, as a consequence, what norms are imparted to children during primary socialization.

What Is Socialization?

Socialization is the process by which individuals acquire social skills, beliefs, values, and behaviors necessary to function effectively in society or in a particular group.

Socialization is necessary for people to learn how to interact with others, and to develop a sense of self and identity. An agent of socialization is a person or group that helps an individual learn the norms, values, and behaviors of a particular society or culture.

Agents of socialization can be powerful forces in shaping an individual's beliefs and behaviors. Family, friends, teachers, religious leaders, and the media are all examples of agents of socialization. People first learn to use both to use the objects of material culture in these settings, as well as being introduced to the beliefs and values of society.

What Is The First Agent Of Socialization?

The family is traditionally considered to be the first agent of socialization. This is because it is the first group that a child interacts with and learns from.

This family can consist of any formation, ranging from young children living with their biological parents to those raised by adoptive guardians.

The family teaches children basic norms and values, such as how to speak, behave, and think. It is also the first group to provide emotional support and care.

Family members show children how to use objects, such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes; how to describe their relationships to others; and what is real and imagined - and how else to relate to the world.

There are several reasons why the family is considered the first agent of socialization in particular. Firstly, the family is most often literally the first social group that a child interacts with.

They tend to children from the moment they are born, and are also the most important people in a child's life during the early years, when they are learning and growing the most.

Secondly, parents or other primary caregivers typically spend more time with children than anyone else does. This means that they have more opportunities to teach them and influence their development.

Finally, parents usually have more control over their children's environment than anyone else does. For example, they can choose what books they read, what TV shows they watch, and who their friends are.

Research has shown that the family is one of the most important agents of socialization. For example, children who have supportive and involved parents are less likely to engage in adolescent drinking behaviors than those who did not have such support (Barnes, Farrell, & Cairns, 1986).

Factors That Can Affect The First Agent Of Socialization

There are several factors that can affect the first agent of socialization, namely:

Time period

The time period in which a child is raised can affect the first agent of socialization. For example, in the past, it was acceptable for parents to be strict with children.

Children were treated as small adults, subject to corporal punishment and, in extreme cases, sent to work. With the 20th-century, however, came the view that childhood was a distinct life stage, and children should be protected and nurtured.

Industries developed around providing entertainment appropriate for children, and parents sought to help their children reach certain developmental milestones.

Socioeconomic status

A child's socioeconomic status can also affect the first agent of socialization. Children from lower-income families are more likely to be raised by a single parent or by grandparents. 

In general, children from lower-income families have less access to resources and opportunities, which can influence their development.

With varying social class comes varying values. For example, children from lower-class families are more likely to be raised with the values of obedience and conformity, while children from middle- or upper-class families are more likely to be raised with the values of individuality and self-expression.

These different values can lead to different outcomes in life. For instance, children who are raised with the value of individuality may go on to seek a career that expresses who they are and what they want to do, while children who are raised in a less individualistic way may look to provide for their family first.

Race/ethnicity

A child's race or ethnicity can also affect the first agent of socialization. Children from minority groups may have less contact with people from other racial or ethnic groups, which can limit their  exposure to different perspectives.

In addition, children from minority groups may experience discrimination, which can lead to feelings of isolation and inferiority.

As a result, it is important for children from minority groups to have a strong sense of identity and belonging to their cultural group. Otherwise, they may develop an identity crisis, which can lead to problems in later life (Horn, Ruck, & Liben; 2016).

Gender

A child's gender can also affect the first agent of socialization. Boys and girls are often treated differently by their parents and other adults, which can lead to different experiences and expectations.

From the beginning of life, girls and boys are often dressed differently and given different toys to interact with, shaping their social and material norms. Boys are often encouraged to be active and independent, while girls are often encouraged to be nurturing and caregiving.

These different messages can lead to different outcomes in life. For instance, females dominate many "nurturing" professions, such as nursing and caregiving, while men are prominent in active and technical fields, such as law enforcement and engineering.

Religion

Children who are raised in a religious household may attend religious education classes, participate in religious rituals, and be exposed to a particular set of beliefs and values through the behavior of their family members.

As a result, religion can play a significant role in shaping a child's worldview, regardless of whether they stay in that religion or not.

For example, a child raised in a religion where eating pork is prohibited and it is customary to take off shoes when entering a house may grow up to be repulsed by the idea of eating bacon and keeping their sneakers on at home, regardless of whether or not they are still religious (Handel, 2011). 

How does the first agent of socialization differ between cultures?

The first agent of socialization differs between cultures in a few ways. One way is how parents interact with their children. In some cultures, parents are more hands-on with their children, while in other cultures parenting styles are more relaxed.

The structure of families can differ radically across time and space. Some children may be raised by a single parent or nuclear pair, while others are by a family compound or even an entire village.

This can lead to differences in what values are emphasized. For example, cultures where children are brought up by large groups of elders may hold age in esteem, and those cared for by many unrelated and extended family members may be more collectivistic than those primarily taken care of by one or two adults (Handel, 2011).

What is the difference between the first agent of socialization and primary socialization?

The first agent of socialization is the agent that has the most contact with the child in their earliest years.

Primary socialization, meanwhile, is a period early in a child's life where they initially learn and build themselves through experiences, enforcing basic social norms and customs.

For example, when parents toilet train their children, the children experience primary socialization. While the first agent of socialization is an actor that imparts values and norms, primary socialization is the period and experiences that lead to the learning of the norms.

Racial socialization is the term used to describe how children learn the behaviors, attitudes, values and perceptions of their ethnic group, as well as come to see themselves and others as members of that group.

Parents teach children about race as it relates to social status in society through messaging, activities, and behaviors. By teaching about racial-ethnic heritage and history, for example, children can learn racial pride, highlight the existence of inequalities between groups and be prepared to cope with discrimination.

Children can also learn to emphasize individual character traits such as hard work over racial or ethnic group membership; focus on the necessity of individual excellence and the development of positive character traits, and promote feelings of self-worth (Horn, Ruck, & Liben; 2016).

Are children destined to become exactly like their parents?

No, children are not destined to become exactly like their parents. While the first agent of socialization has a great impact on a child's life and can shape them in many ways, other agents of socialization such as peer groups, schools, and the media will also have an influence.

Additionally, as children grow older they begin to think for themselves more and may challenge some of the values that were imparted to them by their parents.

Ultimately, each individual is responsible for the choices they make and no one is destined to become exactly like anyone else.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Aug 30). The First Agent of Socialization. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/first-agent-of-socialization.html

References

Arnett, J. J. (1995). Adolescents' uses of media for self-socialization. Journal of youth and adolescence, 24(5), 519-533.

Baumrind, D. (1980). New directions in socialization research. American psychologist35(7).

Barnes, G. M., Farrell, M. P., & Cairns, A. (1986). Parental socialization factors and adolescent drinking behaviors. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 27-36.

Bugental, D. B., & Goodnow, J. J. (1998). Socialization processes.

Cromdal, J. (2006). Socialization.

Grusec, J. E., & Lytton, H. (1988). Socialization and the family. In Social development (pp. 161-212). Springer, New York, NY.

Handel, G. (Ed.). (2011). Childhood socialization. Transaction Publishers.

Horn, S. S., Ruck, M., & Liben, L. (2016). Equity and justice in developmental science: Implications for young people, families, and communities. Academic Press.

Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. (1994). Group socialization: Theory and research. European review of social psychology, 5(1), 305-336.

Maccoby, E. E. (2007). Historical overview of socialization research and theory. Handbook of socialization: Theory and research1, 13-41.

Mortimer, J. T., & Simmons, R. G. (1978). Adult socialization. Annual review of sociology, 421-454.

Ochs, E. (1999). Socialization. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 9(1/2), 230-233.

O'Lynn, C. (2009). Who is in need of socialization?. Journal of Nursing Education, 48(4), 179.

Rothschild, T. Agents of Socialization. Rothschild's Introduction to Sociology.

Tan, L. Y. C. (2014). Enculturation.

Van Maanen, J. E., & Schein, E. H. (1977).Toward a theory of organizational socialization.

Vandell, D. L. (2000). Parents, peer groups, and other socializing influences. Developmental psychology, 36(6), 699.