Study: Even Youngest Children Know When to Swagger

Children can have difficulty deciphering their own emotions. But a psychology experiment in Utah showed that four- and five-year-olds know when they have a right to be proud. The finding establishes a developmental milestone and can be useful in helping children discuss complex emotions.

They’re proud and they know it.

Children may have trouble deciphering their emotions.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, University of Tennessee graduate student Darren Garcia and colleagues reported that by age 4, children can recognize a show of pride in others. By age 5, they can also see it in themselves.

Knowing this developmental timeline gives parents and teachers opportunities for talking to kids about more complex emotions that go beyond happy and sad. Children at these ages are then ready for conversations about feelings like pride, optimism, disappointment, and frustration.

Pride, the authors write, “is associated with higher self-esteem and increased motivation to achieve.”

In the study, conducted at Brigham Young University, in Provo, UT the researchers invited 144 children ages 3 to 6 to take part in a race to build the tallest block tower in a timed competition. In each race, the child met a member of the research team who was introduced as “one of the fastest tower-builders in the world,” The child was asked to build a taller one, faster than the “expert”.

The race was rigged so that the researchers could get enough winners and losers.

If they “won”, the experimenters praised them. If they “lost,” they were gently told so.

A control group built towers without instructions or comment.

Kids who “won” showed signs of pride — exclamations, puffed chests, and a bit of swagger – at all ages. Kids who “lost” shook it off.

But the researchers knew that children often feel and act on emotions before they understand them.

To see if they understood their feelings, the investigators showed the children a set of four photographs with child actors demonstrating facial expressions and body language commonly associated with happiness, sadness, surprise, and pride. They first asked the kids to pick the picture that best demonstrated how they felt after the race. Then they asked them to pick the picture that showed a child feeling “proud.”

The results showed the children who had been told they won, accurately identified the emotion they felt as being pride. The other kids and the controls were basically all over the map, showing no consistencies in which photo they selected as representing what they felt--though the older children who were told they failed the test generally looked sad, video showed.

“When parents talk to their kids about emotions, those children demonstrate better emotional regulation as they get older,” said co-author and Brigham Young psychology professor Ross Flom, PhD, discussing the study.

Garcia, the lead author and a father, said he saw another take-home message from the experiment. He noted how important it is for kids to accomplish goals that are “doable yet challenging.”

(Photo: courtesy of P.K. Furnish)