Professor Tyler Co-Authors Book on Children’s Legal Socialization


In their book, Why Children Follow Rules: Legal Socialization and the Development of Legitimacy, Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School Tom Tyler and Justice Collaboratory Research Fellow Rick Trinkner make a case for the possibility of a legal system based upon consent—rather than coercion—by demonstrating that children can develop a consensual relationship with legal authority.

Evidence suggests law-related attitudes and values are central to motivating adult law-related behavior. According to the book, by age eighteen a person's orientation toward law is largely established. Because influential contact with the legal system occurs prior to age eighteen, personal interaction with the legal system can impact the trajectory of people’s lives during their most formative years. Despite this evidence, “legal scholarship has widely ignored the process of childhood and adolescent socialization,” and focused instead on adult legal socialization.

Legal socialization is the process by which children and adolescents acquire their law-related values, attitudes, and reasoning capacities. Such values and attitudes, in particular legitimacy, underlie the willingness to consent to laws and defer to legal authorities that make legitimacy-based legal systems possible, according to the authors.

Tyler and Trinkner examine the three institutions that comprise the primary settings for legal socialization: family, school, and the juvenile justice system. From the various encounters children and adolescents have with the law, and especially criminal-justice interactions, a general framework develops that guides people in determining whether to defer to legal authority.  When individuals experience authority that is fair, respectful, and aware of the limits of power, they are more likely to consent and follow directives. The ideal outcome of legal socialization, Tyler and Trinkner claim, is a critical stance towards rules and authorities, which includes both a responsibility to follow laws while retaining a perspective that enables people to hold authorities accountable for their exercise of power.

Throughout Why Children Follow Rules, Tyler and Trinkner emphasize the degree to which individuals can develop their orientations toward law and legal authority upon values connected to responsibility and obligation as opposed to fear of punishment. They argue that authorities can act in ways that internalize legal values and promote supportive attitudes. In particular, consensual legal authority is linked to three issues: how authorities make decisions, how they treat people, and whether they recognize the boundaries of their authority.

Despite evidence showing the benefits of consensual authority, strong pressures and popular support for the exercise of authority based on dominance and force persist in America's families, schools, and within the juvenile justice system. As low levels of public trust and confidence in the police, the courts, and the law undermine the effectiveness of the legal system, Tyler and Trinkner point to alternative ways to foster the popular legitimacy of the law in an era of mistrust.

Professor Tyler’s research explores the role of justice in shaping people’s relationships with groups, organizations, communities, and societies. In particular, he examines the role of judgments about the justice or injustice of group procedures in shaping legitimacy, compliance, and cooperation. He is the author of several books, including Why People Cooperate (2011); Legitimacy and Criminal Justice (2007); Why People Obey the Law (2006); Trust in the Law (2002); and Cooperation in Groups (2000). He was awarded the Harry Kalven prize for “paradigm shifting scholarship in the study of law and society” by the Law and Society Association in 2000, and in 2012, was honored by the International Society for Justice Research with its Lifetime Achievement Award for innovative research on social justice.

Rick J. Trinkner is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a Research Fellow at the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. His research seeks to understand why people follow rules and defer to authority and how regulatory agencies can best foster support from those they serve. Much of this work focuses on how people, particularly young adults, are socialized into rule-based institutions and how this process shapes their views on the legitimacy of authority, their acquisition of legal values and attitudes, and their engagement in behavior governed by formal codes of conduct.