Kids don’t avoid sidewalks cracks out of concern for their parents’ back health. They do it because they are hardwired for superstition. According to psychologist and professor Dr. Jacqueline D. Woolley, who has spent more than a decade studying how children form beliefs, children are highly suggestible and highly imaginative, which can lead to belief in causal relationships that don’t make a whole lot of sense. Superstition is about both discovery through trial and error. It’s also about the weirdness of human culture.
“We’re born with almost an innate drive to find relationships between things,” Woolley says. “That drive gets kind of over-energized and we perceive relations between things when they don’t really exist.”
Without this ingrained inclination towards superstition, Woolley doubts that such beliefs would thrive. Neither would science. But nature still doesn’t provide an adequate explanation of why kids aren’t crossing black cats’ paths. On top of this pre-existing bias, kids learn superstitions through a complicated combination of cultural traditions, language, and social factors. It’s not nature versus nurture; it’s both.
Kids aren’t taught superstitions in a typical sense. No one is sitting them down and saying, “Today we’re going to learn about luck and the consequences of walking under ladders so I brought these visual aids.” However, by the time kids reach age 5 or 6-years-old, they’ve not only heard about luck, but also have an understanding of how it works. Why? Well, it might have to do
“They’re probably getting a lot of it from children’s books,” explains Woolley. Superstitions and magical thinking are routinely deployed by authors to create imaginative, kid-friendly worlds.
The thing about the ideas introduce by kiddie lit is that they’re sticky and contagious. In the 1959 book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, anthropologist authors Iona and Peter Opie famously documented kids sharing superstitions for fun. It is a childish equivalent to talking about politics or work, a negotiation of how the world should and does work. Still, understanding kids’ superstitions is more complicated than grasping a cocktail party dynamic. When superstitions border on supernatural beliefs, everything gets slightly murkier.
“We tend to endorse positive supernatural beings and not negative ones. So very few parents try to encourage beliefs in ghosts,” Woolley explains. Yet, she will encourage her own kids to blow out birthday candles — a cultural traditions that is so common, it’s easy to forget it’s slightly superstitious behavior.
Superstitious beliefs differ from religious ones as because there are different expectations attached. “Parents want their kids to believe in, you know, their religious traditions. But I think parents are somewhat ambivalent about concepts like luck,” Woolley says. Parents aren’t super invested in whether or not their kid really thinks the garage door opener is “magic.” They know, on some level, that such believes are inevitably punctured. Whether or not that happens in the short term doesn’t matter unless there are negative ramifications associated with the belief.
“If a kid started wishing for everything and not trying to ever do anything, then I’d be concerned that you can’t fix their reality,” she explains, noting that this is rare and usually a result of a mental health problem.
Instead of worrying about relatively normal, childhood beliefs, parents might want to worry about themselves. According to Woolley, adults are just as gullible as children, just in different ways. Adults respect for authority and logic makes them susceptible to beliefs that children might find ridiculous. It’s just hard to take that feedback from a tiny person obsessed with finding four-leafed clovers.