What bliss of youth? A new study suggests kids' sense of self is very complex
Their sense of value in the world might be just as abstract and fragile as, well, ours!
Now that school is back in session, you're bound to glimpse a recess or two and who could blame you for wishing you could be as innocent and carefree as you once were. The blissful ignorance of youth looks extra-sweet now that we're bogged down with the anxieties and insecurities of adult life. But don't hop into a time machine too quickly; there's reason to believe that childhood was not as simple as it might have seemed. It turns out, according to a new study, that a child's sense of self and value in the world might be just as abstract and fragile as an adult's.
The study, from researchers at New York University and published in Child Development, aimed to uncover how children think of themselves and their abilities as well as how those thoughts are influenced by their successes and failures. Researchers intended to test the common beliefs that children think of themselves in concrete versus abstract terms — "I got an A+" versus "I am smart", and are unable to rationalize how these traits fit into the world around them. They took 176 children aged 4 to 7, and put them through of 4 similar tests. Each test presented an imaginative hypothetical scenario for the children: that they could not complete a task they tried hard to complete. In some scenarios, the children were informed that the task was an easy one to complete and in others, the children were informed the task was more complicated and difficult. Furthermore, some children were informed they were completing these tasks for themselves, while others were informed these tasks were at the request of an adult like a teacher or parent. After envisioning these scenarios, the children were asked how they felt about their own abilities related to the task as well as how their inability to complete the task influenced the perception of themselves in the world; eg. "does completing/not completing the task make you feel like a good boy/girl or not a good boy/girl?".
The results indicated that children could think about themselves and their abilities in abstract terms and evolve their concepts of self worth, much like an adult. Generally, when children were told they failed an easier task, they had a diminished sense of their abilities but not their self worth, a relationship that was inverted when they envisioned not completing the harder task. Perhaps most noteworthy was that though their perception of their abilities did not significantly change, children reported a lower sense of self when they failed a task at the request of an adult.
The results of this research behooves much more insight into the complex and malleable childhood psyche. How children's concepts can fluctuate might indicate that the belief that kids will get over disappointments and failures simply because of their youth may not hold water. This is an interesting observation that seems to be supported by more and more research; childhood trauma and bullying have been reportedly linked to poorer mental and physical health in young victims (which can last well past childhood into their middle age). Furthermore, mental health disorders that can develop (like anxiety and depression) could lead to a worse transition into adulthood, even if those disorders are ultimately managed.
Though it's not clear what parenting styles this study's participants were raised with — and more work into the effects of that is being done — parenting style does come into question. Could it be that given the easily influenced senses of self of children that "participation trophy parenting", whereby children are praised for the process, not the "win", is most beneficial? Another recent study showed that parents who changed their punitive parenting styles reduced their children's aggression behaviour. Regardless of parenting style, children's self worth can potentially be influenced by their parents' self worth (as well as teachers, peers and other mentors in their lives) and that's not all. Studies have shown that girls with overweight parents, for example, may be more than twice as likely to be overweight themselves and that a child's (already shaky) attention span could be greatly diminished when their parents are distracted while interacting with them.
While these findings at first seem discouraging, perhaps if a child's sense of self can ebb and flow, then that means kids with normally lower self esteem can be boosted and problems could be avoided or solved before they become long lasting issues. Where the real burden may be is on the parents, teachers and mentors in a child's life; to understand the complexity and fragility of their psyches while being aware enough of their own behaviour to properly influence them.