TORONTO — Think young children believe everything they’re told? Think again. Kids begin feeling skeptical about certain things teachers and parents tell them as early as age 6, according to new research. This is especially the case when they hear something that surprises them, say scientists.
So what happens when children are feeling more skeptical? Researchers from the University of Toronto and Harvard say they learn on their own through observation and experimentation, seeking out additional information by asking questions or by testing claims.
“The research shows that as children age, they become more skeptical of what adults tell them,” says lead author Samantha Cottrell, a senior lab member from the Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab at the University of Toronto, in a statement. “This explains why older children are more likely to try to verify claims and are more intentional about their exploration of objects.”
Previous research has shown 6-year-olds are more cynical compared to 4- and 5-year-olds. But little is known about why they are dubious of grown ups. Two separate studies shed fresh light on the phenomenon, clarifying if and why children explore surprising claims.
The first study involved Canadian children ages 4-6 who were presented with three familiar objects: a rock, a piece of sponge-like material and a hacky sack. An experimenter began by asking children if they thought the rock was hard or soft. Naturally, all participants agreed that the rock was hard. Researchers then told some participants the rock was actually soft, while others confirmed it was hard.
Almost all who heard claims that aligned with their beliefs continued to make the same judgment as before. In contrast, few of the children who were told that the rock was soft continued to make the same judgment. The experimenter then told children that they had to leave the room for a phone call, allowing the children to explore the object on their own. Video-recordings showed most engaged in testing surprising claims, regardless of age.
‘Children don’t believe everything they’re told’
In a second study, 154 children ages 4-7 from the same area of the city were presented with eight vignettes over Zoom. For each, they were told the adult made a surprising claim such as, “The rock is soft,” or, “The sponge is harder than the rock.” They were asked what another child should do in response to that claim and why they should do that.
Results indicated 6- and 7-year-olds were more likely than younger children to suggest an exploration strategy tailored to the claim they heard. For instance, touching the rock in the first example, while touching the rock and the sponge in the second. Scientists say with increasing age, children are increasingly justifying exploration as a means of verifying the adult’s surprising claim.
The findings suggest as children age, they become more aware of their doubts about what adults tell them, even when they are equally likely to engage in exploration. As a result, their exploration becomes more intentional, targeted and efficient.
“There is still a lot we don’t know. But what’s clear is children don’t believe everything they are told,” says co-author Samuel Ronfard, assistant professor at UT and lab director at the Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab. “They think about what they’ve been told and if they’re sceptical they seek out additional information that could confirm or disconfirm it.”
The research is published in the journal Child Development.
Report by Mark Waghorn, South West News Service