Sense of Self-Worth May Develop Earlier Than Once Thought

A new study shows that our ability to reason about our self-worth as individuals develops as young children.

But the study from researchers at New York University also suggests that failure can instill discouragement sooner than previously thought.

“Young children’s self-concepts are not qualitatively different from those of older children and adults,” said Dr. Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “Young children can think of themselves as possessing abstract traits and abilities, and they can also reason about their self-worth, which has implications for self-esteem.”

However, he notes that “this level of maturity in reasoning about the self also means that young children can become dispirited in the face of failure and are not the undaunted optimists that previous theories have described.”

“In light of this new work, we need to think carefully about, and investigate, ways of supporting young children’s motivation and engagement with important — but often difficult — activities, such as school,” he continued.

According to the researchers, it has long been thought that young children think of themselves in concrete, behavioral terms and, unlike adults or older children, are cognitively incapable of reasoning about their traits or their worth as individuals.

The researchers tested this belief, trying to understand if young children can think about themselves in terms of general traits and abilities (“I’m smart”) and judge their global worth as individuals or if they are largely focused on concrete behaviors and outcomes (“I got a good grade”).

The researchers conducted a series of studies of children ranging from four to seven years old. The participants were presented several hypothetical scenarios that varied in several respects.

The children were asked to imagine they could not complete a task, such as solving a puzzle, despite “trying really hard.”

In some cases, they were told the task was easy, such as drawing the sun, while in others that it was difficult, such as drawing a horse.

Additionally, some children were told the task was done at the request of a parent or teacher, while others were told it was self-initiated.

The children were then asked questions about their abilities, such as “Does not drawing the sun or the horse right make you feel like you’re good at drawing or not good at drawing?”

They also were asked about their global sense of self-worth: “Does not finishing the puzzle make you feel like a good boy/girl or not a good boy/girl?”

At the end of the sessions, children acted out positive scenarios and were debriefed, the researchers noted.

The results showed that children as young as four can flexibly reason about their abilities and their global sense of self-worth based on the context of their behavior.

For example, children lowered their estimation of their abilities, but not their global self-worth, when told they failed an easy, as opposed to hard, task.

On the other hand, they lowered their estimation of their global self-worth, but not their abilities, when told they failed a task requested by an adult.

In other words, adult involvement could negatively affect self-esteem, independent of the task, the researchers explain.

“This evidence reveals surprising continuity between young children’s self-concepts and those of older children and adults,” Cimpian said. “However, more importantly, our findings show the impact others can have on young children’s sense of self-worth at a very young age.

“It is therefore important for both parents and educators to understand that our children may become more discouraged than we previously realized and find ways to foster a productive learning environment,” he concluded.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

Source: New York University