Five-year-old kids entering preschool care about their reputations, according to a literature review in Trends In Cognitive Sciences, and kindergarteners may even take adult-like pains to maintain a public image.
“Young children will vary their behavior based on who is watching, and they will pass judgment on the reputational behaviors of others,” co-author on the review Ike Silver of the University of Pennsylvania told Fatherly. “All of these apparently emerging around the same time as, say, their ability to read a book or solve simple math problems.”
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Kindergarten
Until recently, it was unclear whether small children cared about their reputations at all. Although much ink has been spilled describing how adults maintain their public images, comparatively little research focused on children. Two decades ago, it was accepted that complex reputational behavior could not emerge in children until age 9.
But evidence of what Silver calls “pint-sized public relations” has recently emerged. One 2014 study found that five-year-old children are more generous when they know they’re being watched, and this effect is even stronger when they’re observed by potential reciprocators. This suggests that kids may feign generosity to improve their public images. Other studies have shown that, once children acquire a positive reputation, they’ll fight to keep it—preschoolers who are told they have a good reputation are less likely to behave dishonestly. And small children appear to recognize reputation for the social capital that it is. Five-year-olds offer positive evaluations of classmates to improve their friends’ social standings. By age six, children are suspicious of peers who harm others’ reputations.
“Much of the research includes children being put in situations where reputation is relevant, and shows that children vary their behavior in surprising and sometimes deceptive or strategic ways,” Silver says. But it’s unclear whether children are actively being deceptive. Are preschoolers smooth operators who fake generosity to get ahead, or are they simply more open about their inherent kindness when there’s something to be gained by showing off? Silver and his colleagues are unsure. “We don’t yet know to what extent this stems from an explicit conscious concept.”
Silver hopes that this literature review firmly establishes that kids care about their reputations, and expects future studies to examine how parents and teachers can leverage this fact to encourage good behavior. “We now know relatively convincingly that children are driven by reputational considerations, but we don’t yet know enough about the boundaries of these behaviors,” he says. “We don’t have answers to these questions or concrete recommendations yet. But we’re taking steps in that direction.”
Until then, there are a few takeaways for moms and dads. When interacting with your preschoolers and kindergarteners, keep in mind that they probably care quite a bit about how others view them — and that they’re constantly taking cues from you. If you tell them they have a good reputation, they’ll fight to maintain it. And if you maintain your own reputation by bragging obnoxiously, odds are they’ll do it too. “It may also be interesting to try having a conversation with your child about their perceptions of reputation and social evaluation,” Silver adds.
“You might be surprised by how much they think about this stuff.”