Washington | By age five children have a sense of self-esteem comparable in strength to that of adults, according to a new study. Since self-esteem tends to remain relatively stable across one’s lifespan, the study suggests that this important personality trait is already in place before children begin kindergarten.
Our work provides the earliest glimpse to date of how preschoolers sense their selves, said lead author Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). We found that as young as 5 years of age self-esteem is established strongly enough to be measured and we can measure it using sensitive techniques, said Cvencek.
Researchers used a newly developed test to assess implicit self-esteem in more than 200 five-year-old children, the youngest age yet to be measured. 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 I-LABS.
It is a social mindset children bring to school with them, not something they develop in school, Meltzoff said. Until now no measurement tool has been able to detect self-esteem in preschool-aged children. This is because existing self-esteem tests require the cognitive or verbal sophistication to talk about a concept like self when asked probing questions by adult experimenters.
Preschoolers can give verbal reports of what they’re good at as long as it is about a narrow, concrete skill, such as ‘I’m good at running’ or ‘I’m good with letters,’ but they have difficulties providing reliable verbal answers to questions about whether they are a good or bad person, Cvencek said. To try a different approach, Cvencek, Meltzoff and co-author Anthony Greenwald created a self-esteem task for preschoolers.
Called the Preschool Implicit Association Test (PSIAT), it measures how strongly children feel positively about themselves. 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.
Researchers also found that children who had high self-esteem and strong own-gender identity also showed stronger preferences for members of their own gender. Taken together, the findings show that self-esteem is not only unexpectedly strong in children this young, but is also systematically related to other fundamental parts of children’s personality, such as in-group preferences and gender identity, researchers said.
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