Why Your Child Is Not Foolproof
April 01, 2012
Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.
This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on April 1, 2012.
It wasn’t until I went to graduate school in 1984 that I started to work on a Compac computer, the size of a standard weekend suitcase which my husband lugged up to our third floor apartment I couldn’t believe my eyes. I could correct my typos before they were even on paper! It was beyond my wildest dreams as an academic.
Nowadays I can make one of my colleagues giggle just by opening my “old-fashioned” sliding keyboard cell phone. I am still resisting touch screen technology and long for my cell phone to ring… well… like a phone instead of a jukebox.
There is simply no denying that our children are growing up in a vastly different world. With this endless game of technology leapfrog comes increasing demands on our ability to figure out what is possible and impossible, valid or unreliable information.
For young children, this is even harder than you might think.
At the University of Virgina, Professor Judy DeLoache and her colleagues set out to explore how young children ages four to eight would react to seeing “impossible” events with their own eyes. They individually invited children into their lab to see their very fancy machine with lots of flashing lights, dials and buttons. The researchers then told the children:
“This is my special machine. This machine can change things in all sorts of ways – it can make big things little, it can turn pictures into real things, and it can make toys turn real, too! Let’s turn it on and see what it can do.”
The researcher would then put one object (a toy hammer) in one door of the machine, have the child push the “on” button, and open another door where a transformed object (a real hammer) would appear. After seeing several “transformations” (such as a picture of a duck becoming a stuffed animal duck), the child’s parent would ask the child questions about what he or she had just seen. Questions included whether it was a trick, a magical machine, or if these things had really happened.
What they found stunned the research team. One hundred percent of the four year olds, 88 percent of the five year olds, 71 percent of the six year olds and even 33 percent of the seven year olds completely believed that the machine had magically transformed the objects.
Amazed, they made the transformations even more fantastical. A picture of a lizard in a cage would go into the machine and a live lizard in an identical cage would come out! Still, the range was remarkable: 88 percent of five year olds to 40 percent of eight year olds believed the transformations to be real.
Yet when they asked a separate group of children whether a flashlight could turn little or if pictures of animals could become real animals, approximately two-thirds of the time the child would report it was not possible. Asked as a question, this age group was more likely to get it right.
In this research team’s experiments, it wasn’t until children were eight or nine years old before they consistently said that what they had seen the magical machine do simply wasn’t possible.
While this may seem difficult to imagine as an adult, think about watching a skilled magician’s performance. We know it isn’t possible, but the power of the visual information is overwhelming.
This research has all kinds of implications, from what we might interpret as to when a child is intentionally lying, to the resonance of screen images as “real”, to the idea that children are absorbing information and knowledge from everyone around them. It is an enormous task to figure out what is valid and reliable knowledge, especially in the early years.
Enjoy this April Fool’s Day, but remember that for your child, seeing is often believing.