When my six- and four-year-old show irrational fears — say of getting a cup of water at night or that the neighbor’s dog is in fact Gmork from The NeverEnding Story — I yell, “Look out for ducks!” This is because once long ago on the shores of a bucolic pond, my bread-toting son, Leif, was surrounded by a mob of quackers looking for crackers. They closed in, bills clicking. There was much trauma (and very little rejoicing).
Now six, Leif knows that ducks are unlikely to peck the flesh from his bones, and this stupid parental catchphrase (“Look out for ducks!”) helps lighten worried moods and remind him that some things that seem scary at first turn out to be harmless and even fun. At six, Leif knows that the fantasy of killer ducks I project as a dumb dad joke is not reality. At four, my daughter lives my literal warning — if not immediately then certainly sometime soon, she believes the ducks will come for her. Likewise, she fears mascots. A costume that shows a human face, no matter how bloody and horrifying, is fine — but beware the Easter Bunny or the University of Colorado Boulder mascot, Chip the Buffalo. Without a human face, what we know as unreality is Kestrel’s reality. (And that jingling sound in my pocket is the quarters I keep ready to contribute freely to her therapy jar.)
How does Leif know that bloodthirsty zombie ducks and freaky, too-cute mascots are fantasy, while my daughter thinks they’re reality? A study published this week in the journal Child Development has some interesting answers (caution: full text behind paywall). First, contrary to the stereotype of kids as wide-eyed believers, authors Woolley and Ghossainy from U Texas, Austin write that, “Children are as likely to doubt as they are to believe.” Only, without an adult’s wellspring of experience in sorting fantasy from reality, a child’s probing can and does still lead to erroneous belief. “Children are, in many cases, skeptics, albeit often misguided ones,” the authors write.
For example, “Experimental work with young children reveals high levels of belief in Santa Claus,” the authors write. Imagine Venkman-like researchers with clipboards asking, “Do you believe in Santa Claus, little girl?” and then super-seriously charting the answer: “Hmmm, very interesting…” This is funny. But it’s also telling. To a large degree, kids don’t start out as believers — they start as skeptics and culture lures them into belief. Let’s look at the problem space, which the authors conceptualize as a “signal detection task” and sort into the following four possibilities:
1. Real and knows it’s real: HIT — Dinosaurs existed.
2. Real but thinks it’s unreal: MISS — believes dad must be joking about parasaurolophus.
3. False but thinks it’s real: FALSE ALARM — believes in the Easter Bunny.
4. False and knows it’s false: CORRECT REJECTION — “doubting the existence of dancing carrots,” the authors somewhat enigmatically write.
In Woolley’s and others’ studies, the default of young children is to cluster in categories 3 and 4 — to disbelieve even of reality. For example, researchers showed that young children tend to disbelieve in the reality of the movie March of the Penguins, with one kid saying, “If they wanted to make the film so real, why did they use special effects..?”
Then children in the 4-5yo range are easily tricked into belief, for example by the existence of presents under a tree, the replacement of a tooth with a toy, or the fact that their Halloween candy has been changed into a yo-yo overnight by an entity their parents call the Candy Witch (I’m not making this stuff up; these examples are from Woolley’s empirical experiments.) Finally though, older children cease to believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Candy Witch. Thus, “Level of belief in novel beings appears to form an inverted U-shaped developmental pattern, rather than the traditional pattern of a linear decrease with age.”
Kids disbelieve, then parents and culture trick them into belief, then canny kids wise up and once again disbelieve. When this happens to my kids, I will cry — but nonetheless, correct disbelief shows mature thought, specifically, “Accurately making reality status decisions [involves] a decreasing reliance on one’s own knowledge and experience and an increased consideration and use of a wide range of other sources of information,” the authors write. So it is the child who looks outside herself that learns to know fact from fiction. She considers not only her own experience, but all the evidence at hand and makes a considered judgment.
But what about the child who continues to believe? What of the middle-schooler who believes in dragons or the high-schooler who believes his P.E. teacher is an extraterrestrial, shape-shifting, blood-drinking alien (let’s not even get into religious belief here…)? Are these fantasy kids slow? Are they dumb? Woolley and Ghossainy suggest the opposite: “Belief in the communicative ability of novel supernatural beings may require more cognitive sophistication than [does] disbelief,” they write.
In other words, propping up a fantasy into the middle grades and beyond takes significant cognitive control to fend off the pesky whisperings of reality. We have four stages: naive disbelief, easily-tricked belief, considered disbelief and highly-evolved belief. In this model, only the most sophisticated thinkers can bolster their highly-evolved belief in dragons from the doubters.