Researchers have found that very young children think that birthday parties are what make people older.
Young children are convinced that birthday parties are what age us.
Children understand and perceive the world in different ways. If their view of birthday parties were true, we could stop aging by ceasing to celebrate birthday parties. Thus, children don’t really view birthday parties as celebrations, but rather as rituals.
Of course, older children are able to understand what birthdays really are. However, children in the ages three to five see things differently, and it’s easy to see why. After all, when their birthdays near, we tell children that they won’t turn four until Saturday, for example. On Saturday, during their birthday party, they turn four. Thus, it follows that it’s the parties that age us. Children aren’t quite sure how this works, however. Even so, they’re quite sure that birthday parties cause aging, and they also believe that we can grow younger if we celebrate our birthdays in reverse.
You're three years old because the candle on your cake says so. [Photo via Getty]
An interesting new research is a compilation of two studies that are looking into how children understand aging. According to the findings of these studies, preschool-age children understand that all living things—us humans, animals, and plants—grow. They also understand that aging is a biological process (though not so much in those exact terms, of course).
However, humans in particular, specifically in many cultures, ascribe a certain importance to marking the day that you age one year. Thus, this cultural practice likely influences the way young children view aging as a biological process.
The research involves a total of nine American children aged three to five. The researchers told the children three stories: one about a child who had no birthday party; a second about a child who had two parties; and a third who turned three and had one birthday party. After telling these stories, the researchers asked the participants how old the children in the stories were.
The results were telling. The four- and five-year-olds did quite better at figuring out the ages of the characters in the first and third stories. However, all the children were confused when it came to the second story involving the child with two birthday parties. 38 percent of the participants answered that the child in that story was turning two years older.
There's an overlap in biology and culture when it comes to birthdays.
Next, the researchers took a look at how children viewed the way adults aged. “This is Mrs. Jamison,” so went the new story the researchers told the children. “She is a teacher. How old do you think she is? Tomorrow is her birthday. But she does not want to get older. She wants to stay the same age for the rest of her life. Can Mrs. Jamison stay the same age and not get older? Does Mrs. Jamison have to get older even if she does not want to?”
71 percent of the three-year-olds answered that Mrs. Jamison can make herself younger. The four- and five-year-olds, however, were able to do better on the questions regarding Mrs. Jamison’s age.
If nothing else, this research shows how important those early formative years are. We’re not born with an innate understanding of aging and the passage of time. However, once we hit a certain age, we start to understand and internalize how these things work.
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