File under Whoa: A new study just out indicates that by age 5, children have a sense of self-esteem comparable in strength to that of adults.
This research may add a new layer to the phrase “kindergarten ready.” Researchers at the University of Washington say that self-esteem — which tends to remain relatively stable across one’s lifespan — is in place by the time kids complete preschool.
“Some scientists consider preschoolers too young to have developed a positive or negative sense about themselves. Our findings suggest that self-esteem, feeling good or bad about yourself, is fundamental,” said co-author, Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). “It is a social mindset children bring to school with them, not something they develop in school.”
Previously no measurement tool could detect self-esteem in preschool-aged children. Lead author Dario Cvencek, Meltzoff and co-author Anthony Greenwald created the Preschool Implicit Association Test to measure this trait. The new findings, released yesterday and to be published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, assessed implicit self-esteem in 234 evenly mixed boys and girls.
Participants first learned to distinguish their set of flags (“me”) from another set of flags (“not me”). Using buttons on a computer, they responded to a series of “me” and “not me” flags and to a series of “good” words from a loudspeaker (fun, happy, good, nice) and “bad” words (bad, mad, mean, yucky).
Then they combined the words and pressed buttons to indicate whether the “good” words were associated more with the “me” flags or not.
The results showed that the 5-year-olds associated themselves more with “good” than with “bad,” and this was equally pronounced in both girls and boys.
“Previously we understood that preschoolers knew about some of their specific good features. We now understand that, in addition, they have a global, overall knowledge of their goodness as a person,” said Greenwald.
The study also measured the children’s sense of whether they are a boy or a girl and their preference for other children of their own gender. Children who had high self-esteem and strong own-gender identity also showed stronger preferences for members of their own gender.
“Self-esteem appears to play a critical role in how children form various social identities. Our findings underscore the importance of the first five years as a foundation for life,” Cvencek said.
Researchers aim to give parents tangible information about how to help their children cultivate self-confidence. “What aspects of parent-child interaction promote and nurture preschool self-esteem? That’s the essential question. We hope we can find out by studying even younger children,” says Meltzoff.
Stay tuned: researchers will follow up with study participants to examine whether self-esteem measured in preschool can predict outcomes such as health and school success. They are also interested in the malleability of children’s self-esteem and how it changes with experience.