Tomorrow is Mrs. Jamison’s birthday, but she doesn’t want to get any older. If she skips her birthday party this year, can she halt the inevitable march of time? Scientists posed this question, among others, to three-year-olds in a new study and found that 71 percent believed Mrs. Jamison could avoid aging by simply missing her party. The findings suggest that small children don’t understand how birthdays work and believe that parties make us grow older.
“Children understand certain important biological aspects of the aging process but exhibit confusion regarding others,” according to the study, published in Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. “Children interpret the birthday party as playing a causal role in the aging process.”
Children do have a working knowledge of how things grow. Studies have shown that most preschoolers understand that humans and animals grow while inanimate objects do not (although they remain befuddled by plants). But early cognition is notoriously spotty. Preschoolers have a certain degree of self-awareness, but aren’t always sure whose staring at them in the mirror. They believe the Earth to be round, but fear falling off its edge. They know that parties coincide with aging, but struggle with the cause and effect.
For the study, researchers asked 99 preschoolers about a hypothetical three year old who had a birthday coming up. The children correctly surmised that the child would be four years old after the birthday, whether or not he or she attended a birthday party. But when researchers asked what would happen if the child had two birthday parties, the preschoolers became confused. Nearly 40 percent said the child would age two more years—one for each birthday party.
The Mrs. Jamison scenario was but the icing on the birthday cake. This final scenario demonstrated that children believe birthday parties cause aging—even in adults.
The findings have sweeping implications for child cognition and highlight how children seize cultural behaviors such as birthday parties and incorporate them into their understanding of biological processes. Although adults understand that birthday parties are Western celebrations that have no bearing on biological growth, young children appear to take both culture and science for granted. “Although the biological mechanism of aging is continuous and invisible, it is marked by discrete yearly celebrations,” the authors write. “In part due to its salience as a cultural ritual, children interpret the birthday party as playing a causal role in the aging process.”