A new study has found that by the age of 5, children already have a sense of self-esteem comparable in strength to that of adults.

This is a child’s view of the apparatus used in the test.
Credit: University of Washington

Self esteem is quite a complex personality trait, so you’d expect it to form later in life, but here’s the thing: your self esteem may actually be decided (in gross terms) early in your childhood.

“Our work provides the earliest glimpse to date of how preschoolers sense their selves,” said lead author Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at the UW’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,” said Cvencek, “and we can measure it using sensitive techniques.”

It’s the first time self esteem has been estimated in children so young, and results suggest that self esteem is actually a fundamental trait of humans, established much sooner than previously believed.

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“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 continued: “What aspects of parent-child interaction promote and nurture preschool self-esteem? That’s the essential question. We hope we can find out by studying even younger children.”

The reason why this study hasn’t been done sooner is because traditional tests for self esteem involved 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.

So they tried an alternate approach, and developed the Preschool Implicit Association Test (PSIAT), which measures how positively children think about themselves. While the test for adults measures how quickly people respond to words in different categories, the task for pre-schoolers simply asks them to link “me” or “not me” to objects. They used unfamiliar flags, and the children were told which of the flags were “yours” and “not yours.”

It seems that self-confidence is an important aspect of creating a social, and even gender identity for children. It’s not exactly clear yet how this links to other aspects of their personality.

“Self-esteem appears to play a critical role in how children form various social identities. Our findings underscore the importance of the first five years as a foundation for life,” Cvencek said.

Journal Reference:

  1. Dario Cvencek, Anthony G. Greenwald, Andrew N. Meltzoff. Implicit measures for preschool children confirm self-esteem’s role in maintaining a balanced identity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2016; 62: 50 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.09.015