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Chapter 4: Socialization

4.2 Agents of Socialization

The various socializing sources who teach us cultural beliefs, values and norms are called . They consist of the people, groups and institutions that provide a structured setting for socialization to occur. This section will discuss five of the most important agents of socialization: family, school, peers, the media and religion.

Family

Should parents get the credit when their children behave in ways deemed to be “good” by society and who even go on to accomplish great things in life? Should they get the blame if their children deviate from societal norms and are thus labeled as “bad” kids? No parent deserves all the credit or blame for their children’s successes and failures in life, but the evidence indicates that our parents do affect us profoundly. In many ways, we even end up resembling our parents in more than just appearance.

image of large family

Family is perhaps the most important agent of socialization for children. Parents’ values and behavioral patterns profoundly influence those of their children. Randen Pederson – Family – CC BY 2.0

The reason we turn out much like our parents is that our families are such an important part of our socialization process. When we are born, our primary caregivers are usually our parents, making them our first agents of socialization. In our early childhood, we typically have more contact with them than with any other adults. Because this contact occurs in our most formative years, our parents’ interaction with us and the messages they teach us can have a profound impact throughout our lives. Family teaches us our first lessons about what to think and believe and how to act. This includes everything: how to use objects (‘socks go on your feet not your hands’); how to relate to other people (‘family’ v.s ‘friends’ v.s. ‘neighbor’ v.s. ‘stranger’); and how the world works (what’s real and what is imagined).

The ways in which our parents socialize us depend on many factors. Three of the most important factors affecting socialization are our parents’ social class, our own biological sex, and our race and ethnicity. Melvin Kohn (1965, 1977) conducted research in the United States and found that American working-class and middle-class parents tend to socialize their children very differently. Kohn reasoned that working-class parents tend to hold factory and other jobs in which they have little autonomy and instead are told what to do and how to do it. In such jobs, obedience is an important value, lest the workers be punished for not doing their jobs correctly. Working-class parents, Kohn thought, should thus emphasize obedience and respect for authority as they raise their children, and they should favor spanking as a primary way of disciplining their kids when they disobey. In contrast, middle-class parents tend to hold white-collar jobs where autonomy and independent judgment are valued and workers get ahead by being creative. These parents should emphasize independence as they raise their children and should be less likely than working-class parents to spank their kids when they disobey.

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Chapter Throwback

Chapter 1 explained that social location refers to social and physical traits deemed important by society and which have an effect on our views, behavior and experiences.

Thinking of your own upbringing, how did your family socialize you to be part of your social class, your gender or your race-ethnicity?

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If parents’ social class influences how they raise their children, it is also true that the sex of children affects how they are socialized by their parents. Many studies find that parents raise their daughters and sons quite differently as they interact with them from birth. We will explore gender further in subsequent chapters, but suffice it to say here that parents help their girls learn how to act and think “like girls,” and they help their boys learn how to act and think “like boys.” That is, through parents help their daughters and sons learn their (Wood, 2009). For example, parents tend to be gentler with their daughters and rougher with their sons. They give their girls dolls to play with, and their boys toy cars. To the extent this is true, our gender stems much more from socialization than from biological differences between the sexes, or so most sociologists believe.

image of two children at play, with a boy building with blocks and a girls caring for a baby

Gender socialization is the process of learning what society expects from us as females or males through means both obvious and subtle. Polesie Toys and Yan KrukovPexels

The final critical factors are our race and ethnicity. refers to the messages and practices concerning the nature of a person’s racial or ethnic status as it relates to identity, interpersonal relationships and position in the social hierarchy. There are several iterations to racial socialization. First, there are the attitudes and beliefs taught regarding one’s own race and ethnicity. Curiously for whites in the U.S., since the culture is centered around white norms there is a lack of awareness of being white or that any racial socialization is occurring (Katz, 1978). For members of subordinate groups, however, effort must be put into teaching important cultural knowledge, to counter the unacknowledged power whites have in shaping the culture. When African American parents discuss aspects of cultural heritage, their children may express feelings of pride, and they begin to question the dominant culture’s views towards African Americans (Tang, 2016). Second, racial socialization also means learning attitudes and beliefs about those from different races or ethnicities (“We are better than they are” for example). Children as young as four are aware of race and have attitudes about which races are more valued (Dulin-Kieta, 2011).

Note a distinction must be made between racial socialization and teaching about race relations. Parents who are from racial or ethnic minority groups have long found it necessary to discuss racial interactions with their children, tempering the message depending on their child’s age (introducing issues with inequality when the child is a preteen) or personal characteristics (darker skinned sons get messages about distrusting other races) (Gaskin, 2015). And while some white parents do try to talk about race with their children, these efforts tend to be indirect even in response to situations of clear racial bias, apart from preparing their children for possible bias against their own racial group (Zucker and Patterson, 2018).

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An Illustration of Racial Socialization

The scene opens with a small boy sitting at a table, looking at cartoon drawings of 5 identical children, organized by skin tone, from light skin to dark skin. The interviewer asks a series of questions: Show me the nice child. Show me the dumb child. Show me the mean child. Show me the smart child. The scene is repeated with other children, half Black and half white, half aged 4-5 and half aged 9-10, in a study to learn about racial bias in children. With no other information, the children in the study base their answers on the skin tone of the image compared to themselves, choosing positive attributes for the children like them and negative attributes for those who were different. Young white children demonstrated a high rate of white bias, though this declined when older white children were questioned (Billante and Hadad, 2010). Even the Black children showed a bias towards whiteness. When asked which child adults liked, all the children picked the light skinned child; when asked which child adults did not like, all the children picked the dark skinned child.

The study was an updated version of the baby doll study done by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1940’s, and which had controversial results. The Clarks were interested in studying self esteem in African American children, and devised a simple study. Children between the ages of 3-7 were given four dolls with different skin tones and asked which they preferred. The children overwhelmingly preferred the white doll and often gave positive attributes to it. Some even said they resembled the white doll; disturbingly, one young African American boy used a slur when he picked the doll who looked like him. The study and its conclusions were used in the 1954 Brown v.. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court Case which led to school desegregation.

When the 2010 study was analyzed, researchers suggested the results reveal much about the socialization experience differences between white and Black children. White children are exposed to stereotypes about race and do not get many messages to counter them. The parents of African American children have to actively reframe their children’s orientation so they identify positive traits with their own race. The study found surprisingly few differences in racial attitudes when comparing results from the younger and older children. Once they internalize ideas about race, they seemingly do not evolve. Disappointingly, the lesson they are learning is to place high value on white Americans and to devalue African Americans.

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Schools

The intended purpose of school is to teach children knowledge and skills, such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Usually, the state is in charge of education because society needs an educated workforce. Schools also have other unintended, though useful, purposes. Basic norms about behavior learned at home (such as sharing) are reinforced at school. However, while at home, children only experience their family’s values and learn attitudes that match their family situation. At school, children are exposed to new ideas from their teachers, the curriculum and other students. They begin to see themselves as part of a larger group beyond their immediate family: as members of their class, or school, or community. Eventually they are indoctrinated into the values of American society via the pledge of allegiance or social studies class. Additionally, an important contribution to maturation occurs at school as children learn self-control and personal development — grades are one way to recognize where one’s skills lie. This also sets students on an education path which affects their eventual place in society.

graphic with agents of socialization in the center, and family, school, media, peers, religion and other agents of socialization branching off

There are numerous agents of socialization that influence us throughout our lives.  Depicted above are several of the most prominent agents of socialization.

Functional theorists say schools are responsible for all of these tasks, then add a final element which sociologists call the . The hidden curriculum consists of the lessons a student needs to know in order to be a good citizen once they leave school. Though not taught explicitly, students learn values such as competition (by seeing the person with the best work getting rewarded), punctuality (by getting tardy slips if late), respect for authority (by being sent to the principal’s office), cleanliness, patience and patriotism.

image of group of children holding a flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance

Schools socialize children by teaching them their formal curricula but also a hidden curriculum that imparts the cultural values of the society in which the schools are found. Dorothea Lange – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

While functionalists view the hidden curriculum as a beneficial component of school, conflict theorists point out it teaches primarily positive things about the country’s past and present. In this manner, they learn to love America and not to recognize its faults, and they learn traits that prepare them for jobs and careers that will bolster the capitalist economy. Children are also socialized to believe that failure, such as earning poor grades, stems from not studying hard enough and by extension from not trying hard enough (Booher-Jennings, 2008; Bowles & Gintis, 1976). Schools are also a significant source of gender socialization, as teachers and curricula send out various messages that reinforce the qualities traditionally ascribed to females and males. Students engage in recess and other extracurricular activities that do the same thing (Booher-Jennings, 2008; Thorne, 1993).

The Japanese school system offers a counter to the American way schools socialize children. Japan’s culture emphasizes harmony, cooperation, and respect for authority, stressing the importance of belonging to a group and dependence, instead of individual autonomy, competition and independence. This is especially true in Japanese schools, which, as two sociologists write, “stress the similarity of all children, and the importance of the group” (Schneider & Silverman, 2010, p. 24). Let’s see how this happens (Hendry, 1987; Schwalb & Schwalb, 1996).

From the time they begin school, Japanese children learn to value their membership in their homeroom, or kumi, and they spend several years in the same kumi. Each kumi treats its classroom as a “home away from home,” as the children arrange the classroom furniture, bring in plants and other things from their own homes, and clean the classroom every day. At recess one kumi will play against another.

Other practices in Japanese schools further the learning of Japanese values. Young school children wear the same uniforms. Japanese teachers use constant drills to teach them how to bow, and they have the children repeatedly stand up and sit down as a group. These practices help students learn respect for authority and help enhance the sense of group belonging that the kumi represents. Whereas teachers in the United States routinely call on individual students to answer a question, Japanese teachers rarely do this. Rather than competing with each other for a good grade, Japanese schoolchildren are evaluated according to the performance of the kumi as a whole. Because decision making within the kumi is done by consensus, the children learn the need to compromise and to respect each other’s feelings.

Because the members of a kumi spend so much time together for so many years, they develop extremely close friendships and think of themselves more as members of the kumi than as individuals. They become very loyal to the kumi and put its interests above their own individual interests. In these and other ways, socialization in Japanese schools helps the children and adolescents there learn the Japanese values of harmony, group loyalty and respect for authority.

Peers

As children age, the influence of immediate family lessens as the influence of peers increases, particularly if both parents work. In a general way the main impact of peers is over lifestyle, such as musical tastes and leisure activities, though friends can have an effect on more important matters. Through friends we learn the values of loyalty and companionship; we rely on them for support and fun. This climaxes in adolescence, after which peers have much less power over the individual.

The main reason peers have such an impact is due to the age we are when they become important, around 11 or 12. The next section will discuss socialization over the life course in more detail, but suffice it to say transitioning from childhood to adolescence includes finding our place outside of our immediate family. Since acceptance in a peer group is not automatic, children must conform to the group’s norms to gain entry. And because peer groups are so compelling at this age, adolescents are prone to the effects of . This is not automatically a negative experience; if all their friends join the school marching band or take a higher-level math course, the individual might do the same. Of course, peer pressure also can lead to experimentation with drinking, drugs, sexual activity, delinquency and crime (Agnew, 2007).

Photo of teens drinking at a party

Our peers help socialize us and may even induce us to violate social norms. Maurício MascaroPexels

After we reach our 20s and 30s, our peers become less important in our lives, especially if we get married. Yet even then our peers do not lose all their importance, as married couples with young children still manage to get out with friends now and then. Scholars have also begun to emphasize the importance of friendships with coworkers for emotional and practical support and for our continuing socialization (Elsesser & Peplau, 2006; Marks, 1994).

Test Yourself

The Mass Media

The is another important agent of socialization. In its many forms, the media informs us about events, introduces us to other people, entertains us and exposes us to products, values, and viewpoints. In this way, the media influences our political views; our tastes in popular culture; our views of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people; and many other beliefs and practices. It introduces people to others indirectly, often in a one-way form of communication.

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Think Like A Sociologist

When we think about the media, we tend to forget that this includes the books we read. But books, of course, teach information as well as culturally accepted values, norms and beliefs regarding this information. Children’s books are especially blunt with the messages they teach. For example, in The Monster at the End of this Book (click the book titles to read these books), children learn the values of perseverance and bravery and norms about humor.Next, read the well-known children’s book, The Little Engine that Could.

What cultural values do you believe are promoted in this book?

Now consider this: there is some controversy about the gender of the Little Engine that Could. In most versions, the three trains that do not help are male, but in all versions of the story, going as far back as 1930, the Little Engine that Could is female. Some find that detail unimportant, while others see the Little Engine that Could as an early version of a feminist hero.

Do you think this children’s book has a deeper message, one about empowering girls?

Did the writer make the Little Engine that Could female because she was a less powerful engine, and thus her persistence was that much more impressive?

Interested in this discussion?  Read this article for more information:

In the Little Engine That Could, Some See an Early Feminist Hero

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It is difficult to gauge the influence of the media on society because people pick and choose what they engage in based on their own preferences. What is certain is the increased amount of time given to different forms of the media. For example, in the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS), about 29% of respondents said that they watch four or more hours of television every day, while another 40% watch two to three hours daily (see Figure 4.1 “Average Number of Hours of Television Watched Daily”).

Figure 4.1 Average Number of Hours of Television Watched Daily

Pie chart of the Average Number of Hours of Television Watched Daily, including 0-1 hours at 31.7%, 2-3 hours at 39.6% and 4+ hours at 28.6%.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018.

Commercial television’s hold over society is waning, however,other forms of media now capture our attention. Perhaps partly due to an emerging value that is placed on leisure combined with more established values of technology and comfort, (computer based technology that facilitates the sharing of thoughts, ideas and information) now consumes vast amounts of time and attention in our society. Indeed, a Pew survey from 2021 found that 72% of adults use some form of social networking (Auxier and Anderson, 2021). Similarly, video games attract a wide audience. Overall, 43% of U.S. adults say they play video games sometimes or often; this varies significantly by age and gender. For example, of men between the ages of 18-29, 72% play video games, while only 49% of women in the same age range play video games regularly. The older the respondent, the less likely they were to do this (Perrin, 2018).

Concerns abound. Some point to the lack of regulation online resulting in content that is incorrect (Griffiths, et. al., 2015). This coupled with poor critical thinking skills of users allows far flung conspiracy theories to take hold. Others note how the algorithms used by social media sites result in a skewed news feed which acts as an echo chamber of what the user already thinks. Rather than informing, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like present a limited perspective that reinforces ideologies due to the users initial preferences. Meanwhile, video games and the gamers who play them have been criticized for being misogynistic (Lorenz, 2020). And as the box below explains, violent.

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Think Like A Sociologist

image of Grand Theft Auto game case

One of the most popular video games, Grand Theft Auto, has frequently been at the center of debate about gratuitous violence in the gaming world. Meddy Garnet – flickr

A glance through popular video game and movie titles geared toward children and teens shows the vast spectrum of violence that is displayed, condoned and acted out. Children’s play has often involved games of aggression—from contact sports, to cops and robbers, to fake sword fights. Many articles report on the controversy surrounding the suggested link between violent video games and violent behavior. Is the link real? Psychologists Anderson and Bushman (2001) reviewed forty-plus years of research on the subject and, in 2003, determined that there are causal linkages between violent video game use and aggression. They found that children who had just played a violent video game demonstrated an immediate increase in hostile or aggressive thoughts, an increase in aggressive emotions, and physiological arousal that increased the chances of acting out aggressive behavior (Anderson 2003).

Ultimately, repeated exposure to this kind of violence leads to increased expectations that violence is a solution, increased violent behavioral scripts, and an increased cognitive accessibility to violent behavior (Anderson 2003). In short, people who play a lot of these games find it easier to imagine and access violent solutions than nonviolent ones, and they are less socialized to see violence as a negative. While these facts do not mean there is no role for video games, it should give players pause. (Griffiths, et. al, 2015).

Reflect on your own experiences with your favorite video games. What values and norms did you learn from playing these games?

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As the mass media socializes children, adolescents, and even adults, a key question is the extent to which media violence causes violence in our society (Surette, 2011). Studies consistently uncover a strong correlation between watching violent television shows and movies and committing violence (Huesmann, 2007). However, this does not necessarily mean that watching violence actually causes violent behavior; perhaps people watch violence because they are interested in it and/or are already committing acts of violence. The same could be said about violence in video games. Do violent video games prompt individuals to turn to violent actions, or are those predisposed towards violence more likely to play these games? A related question is, if exposure to violence in the media does indeed result in people acting out violently, what should our response be? Similarly, if social media use is found to result in undesirable consequences, such as bullying, eating disorders and suicide, should we intervene to reduce these outcomes? If so, how? Civil libertarians argue that any monitoring of the media smacks of censorship that violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, while others argue that it falls within the First Amendment and would make for a safer society. Certainly, the concern and debate over mass media’s influence will continue for years to come.

Religion

One final agent of socialization is religion. Certainly, for people who say religion is important to them, its doctrines teach members what to value and believe, instructs on right and wrong, and identifies how to act in accordance with their faith. But even though religion is less important in people’s lives now than it was a few generations ago, it still continues to exert considerable influence on our beliefs, values, and norms. Religious ideas pervade American culture, particularly Christian ones, providing a foundation for both the religious and nonreligious. Not only do our formal laws reflect a Judeo-Christian mindset, our ideas about morality also incorporate religious themes.

When considering religion as an agent of socialization, it’s important to distinguish between religious preference (e.g., Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish) and (e.g., how often people pray or attend religious services). Both these aspects of religion can affect your values and beliefs on religious and nonreligious issues alike, but their particular effects vary from issue to issue. To illustrate this, consider the emotionally charged issue of abortion. People tend to hold strong views on abortion, and many of their views stem from their religious beliefs. Yet which aspect of religion matters the most, religious preference or religiosity? General Social Survey (GSS) data help us answer this question.

Figure 4.2 Religious Preference and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason

Bar chart showing Religious Preference and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason, with both 34% of Protestant and Catholics agreeing.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018.

It turns out that religious preference, if we limit it for the sake of this discussion to Catholics versus Protestants, does not matter at all: Catholics and Protestants in the GSS exhibit equal beliefs on the abortion issue, as about one-third of each group thinks abortion should be allowed for any reason, as shown above in Figure 4.2 “Religious Preference and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason.”

Figure 4.3 Religiosity and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason

Bar chart showing Religiosity and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason, with 36.9% who pray daily agreeing, 56.5% who pray weekly agreeing and 62.9% who rarely or never pray agreeing.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018.

However, as shown above, religiosity matters a lot: GSS respondents who pray daily are 26% less likely as those who rarely or never pray to think abortion should be allowed. Figure 4.3 “Religiosity and the Belief that Abortion Should be Legal for any Reason,” demonstrates that the higher the degree of religiosity, the lower the percentage who approve of the legality of abortion for any reason.

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Using Your Sociological Imagination

The list of people, places and institutions that teach us our culture is considerably greater than the five presented in this section. For example, your teammates on a sports team, your boss at your first job and the neighbors in your community all offer something different.

What other agents of socialization have influenced you, and what did they teach you?

 



Section 4.2 References

Agnew, R. (2007). Pressured into crime: An overview of general strain theory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Anderson, C. (2003). Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts and Unanswered Questions. American Psychological Association, October. Retrieved January 13, 2012 (http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/ 2003/10/anderson.aspx).

Anderson, C.A. and B.J. Bushman. (2001).  Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature. Psychological Science 12:353–359.

Auxier, Brooke and Monica Anderson. (2021).  Social media Use in 2021.  Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021/.

Billante, J. and C. Hadad. (2010). Study: White and Black children biased toward lighter skin.  Retrieved from http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/05/13/expanded_results_methods_cnn.pdf

Blair, E. (2014, July 8). In ‘little engine that could,’ some see an early feminist hero. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2014/07/08/329520062/in-little-engine-that-could-some-see-an-early-feminist-hero.

Booher-Jennings, J. (2008). Learning to Label: Socialisation, gender, and the hidden curriculum of high-stakes testing. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29, 149–160.

Bowles, S. and H. Gintis (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reforms and the contradictions of economic life. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Boyer, S. J. and T. K. Lorenz.  (2020). The impact of heteronormative ideals imposition on sexual orientation questioning distress.  Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 7(1), 91–100. https://doi.org/ 10.1037/sgd0000352

Dulin-Keita A, L. Hannon, J. R. Fernandez and W. C. Cockerham.  (2011). The defining moment: Children’s conceptualization of race and experiences with racial discrimination. Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies. 34(4):662-682. 

Elsesser, K. and L. A. Peplau.  (2006). The glass partition: Obstacles to cross-sex friendships at work. Human Relations, 59, 1077–1100. 

Gaskins, A. (2015). Racial Socialization, Children, Youth and Families. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.: Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2015/08/racial-socialization.aspx.

Hendry, J. (1987). Understanding Japanese society. London, England: Croom Helm.

Huesman, L. R. (2007). The Impact of Electronic Media Violence: Scientific Theory and Research. Journal of Adolescent Health 41 (2007) S6–S13.

Katz, J. H. (1978). White awareness: Handbook for anti-racism training. University of Oklahoma Press.

Kohn, M. (1977). Class and conformity. Homewood, IL: Dorsey. 

Kohn, M. (1965). Social class and parent-child relationships: An interpretation. American Journal of Sociology, 68, 471–480. 

Marks, S. R. (1994). Intimacy in the public realm: The case of co-workers. Social Forces, 72, 843–858. 

Schneider, L. and A. Silverman.  (2010). Global sociology: Introducing five contemporary societies (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

Schwalb, D. W. and B. J. Schwalb (Eds.). (1996). Japanese childrearing: Two generations of scholarship. New York, NY: Guilford Press. 

Smith, T. W., P. Marsden, M. Hout and J. Kim.  General Social Surveys, 1972-2014. [machine-readable data file] /Principal Investigator, Tom W. Smith; Co-Principal Investigator, Peter V. Marsden; Co-Principal Investigator, Michael Hout; Sponsored by National Science Foundation. -NORC ed.- Chicago: NORC at the University of Chicago [producer and distributor].

Perrin, A. (2018). 5 facts about Americans and video games. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/17/5-facts-about-americans-and-video-games/

Piper, Watty.  The Little Engine that Could.  This text was adapted from the original text by Sherlock Center for Disabilities, Rhode Island College.  Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://w3.ric.edu/sherlockcenter/dsi/enginecould.pdf

Stone, John (n.d.). The monster at the end of this book. Retrieved from http://smollin.com/michael/tmonstr/mon001.html

Surette, R. (2011). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 

Tang, S. (2016). Conclusion: The value of parent talk. In P.E. Davis-Kean & S. Tang (Eds.), Socializing children through language (pp.177-182). Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press.

Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Wood, J. T. (2009). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Zucker J.K. and M. M. Patterson (2018). Racial Socialization Practices Among White American Parents: Relations to Racial Attitudes, Racial Identity, and School Diversity. Journal of Family Issues, 39(16), 3903-3930. 

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