A Child's Lifelong Self-Esteem Emerges Earlier Than We Thought

Children may form a sense of their "overall goodness" by preschool.
Mats Anda via Getty Images

Five-year-old children may only read and write at a basic level, but their sense of self is surprisingly sophisticated. A provocative new study suggests that by kindergarten, a child's self-esteem is as strong as an adult's.

The research, published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, finds that most children have developed an overall positive sense of themselves by this age -- and that sense of self remains relatively stable over their lifespan.

"Some rudimentary sense of children’s self-esteem appears to be already established by age 5," Dr. Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at the University of Washington and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post. "That does not mean it can’t change with life experiences and maturation. We think self-esteem is malleable but we also think that it starts earlier than previously thought."

The research overturns traditional psychological beliefs about the way self-esteem develops during childhood. Scientists previously thought that preschoolers were too young to have developed an overall positive or negative sense of themselves, according to Cvencek.

"Our new work," he said, "shows that preschoolers do have a global, overall knowledge of their goodness as a person. It’s a first."

In previous studies, psychologists relied on verbal self-evaluations to measure a child's self-esteem, which may have provided unreliable data due to young children's limited verbal abilities.

So for their study, Cvencek and his colleagues designed a new test, called the Preschool Implicit Association Test (PSIAT), to measure children's positive feelings toward themselves. The researchers administered the test to 234 five-year-old boys and girls living in Washington state.

Similar to an implicit association test for adults -- which asks participants to quickly associate words such as "self" and "pleasant" or "unpleasant" -- the preschoolers were asked to associate objects.

The children were presented with several different varieties of flags, which they were taught to divide into two groups: "yours" and "not yours." Then, the preschoolers completed a task in which they pressed buttons to indicate whether “good” words (fun, happy, good, nice) and “bad” words (bad, mad, mean, yucky) were more associated with "me" or "not-me."

The results of this and two other implicit association tests revealed that the children associated themselves more with good qualities than bad ones.

“Previously we understood that preschoolers knew about some of their specific good features," Dr. Anthony Greenwald, a psychologist at the University of Washington and one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "We now understand that, in addition, they have a global, overall knowledge of their goodness as a person."

The study also revealed that high self-esteem was correlated with strong gender identity and preference for members of their own gender, suggesting that a child's self-esteem is connected to other formative parts of their personality.

Now that we know that self-esteem emerges early in life, how can parents and teachers foster the development of a healthy sense of self in a child?

The warm, supportive connections a child develops with others are probably the most important factor, according to Cvencek.

"Children who feel loved by others may internalize this to love themselves," he said. "Our findings underscore the importance of the first five years as a foundation for life."

Also on HuffPost:

1. Breastfeeding is good.

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