A recent study out of Brigham Young University found that children can recognize pride in others by the age of 4, but it takes another year to recognize it in themselves.
Complex emotions like pride, shame and optimism take longer for children to understand as their brain develops, and BYU psychology professor Ross Flom and two of his students, Darren Garcia and Rebecca Janis, wanted to find out when children would recognize pride in themselves.
Researchers studied specifically when children recognized achievement-oriented pride — pride felt when a goal is reached — instead of hubris pride, which is excessive pride or arrogance, Flom said.
The children, ranging from ages 2 to 6, competed with an adult to build a block tower as quickly as possible. Researchers predetermined who would win and who would lose.
Afterwards, all of the children were asked to choose among a set of four pictures of people showing different emotions the one best depicted how they felt. Most of those who lost did not experience any extreme negative emotions.
"A lot of people have asked children to identify these emotions in others that is pointed out in a photograph or (asked) to point to the picture that is pride, shame or guilt, but we wanted to know at what age do kids recognize this emotion in themselves," Flom said. "When can they say, 'Yes, I did this, I won this and I feel like this picture looks'?"
Although children started displaying pride-like emotions from ages 2 to 3, it took until 3 and 4 to identify pride in others and 4 and 5 years old to identify pride in themselves, Flom said.
"The winners — even the 2-year-olds — showed some obvious swagger: heads held high, chests puffed out, hands on hips in a victorious power pose," according to a news release on the study.
However, for a child to to recognize that behavior is more complex because it requires a more cognitive component, Flom said.
"I think it's just a more complex process, cognitively it might take a little longer to develop the skill, to gain your own experience, as opposed to just seeing a picture of someone else," said Garcia, the head study author. "It's kind of a more cognitively more complex task to recognize your own behavior as opposed to a photo or matching a word."
One way in which the study was different, and perhaps more effective, than other research was using pictures of people expressing different emotions, instead of asking them to associate how they feel with words, said Garcia, who is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee.
Language skills are not entirely developed at the young age of some of the children who were in the study, so instead of having them rely on words, they could simply look and see which emotion was physically being expressed, he said.
Something Garcia took away from the study was discovering that the children needed a clear standard — such as to build a block tower and try to do it faster than somebody else — to elicit the achievement-pride experience.
"One thing I learned, as a parent with children about this age, is kids need clear standards that are doable yet challenging, as well as consistent praise when they meet their goals or exceed the standards we set with them," Garcia said.
"Also, it appears that children understand their own experience of achievement pride when they are about 4 to 5 years old, and this may be an appropriate time to start setting clear goals with our children."
Flom drew similar conclusions in how this can help parents in having a timeline to work with their children and how to understand and properly express their emotions.
"Around 3 to 4 years of age is a great time to start talking with your kids about these more complex emotions," Flom said. "For example, when something happens, you hurt somebody or somebody wrongs you, or you've done really well, saying, 'Wow, you did really well. I bet you feel a sense of joy or happiness about this That's pride, and that's OK to feel that sort of emotion."
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