“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
Most parents are all too familiar with the experience of asking their preschooler what they want for dinner, only to be frustrated that by the time dinner time arrives their child no longer wants the food they were craving only hours earlier. Research suggests this might happen because until around 5 years old, children have difficulty thinking about how they might feel even in the immediate future. Preschooler’s decisions for the future are also heavily influenced by what they want right now. However, it is possible that allowing children to satisfy their current desires might make it easier for them to make decisions for the future.
My honours thesis project investigated this idea in 4-year-old children. I showed children pairs of images and asked them to tell me which item they liked; in each pair, one item was something a child would typically like (e.g. a juice box) while the other was something an adult would typically like (e.g. coffee). I asked some children to tell me what they like right now and then I asked them what they might like when they are grown up. Other children were asked to tell me what they might like as a grown up before they told me what they like right now.
When 4-year-old children were asked to tell me what they might like best as a grown up first, they tended to choose the items an adult would prefer and the items a child would prefer roughly equally; they pretty much chose at random. However, children who were allowed to tell me what they liked now before they had to choose what they might like as a grown up, were much better at choosing the appropriate items, i.e. coffee, for their grown up selves.
We think that this order effect occurs because it is easier for children to tell us they might like coffee when they are a grown up if their current desire to tell us that they really like juice boxes has been satisfied.
If children are better at thinking about their future once current desires have been satisfied, we wondered if allowing children to physically interact with the items they desired might also make it easier to think about future preferences. To test this hypothesis, children in another group were allowed to play with all of the items that children typically prefer before they were asked about what they might like as a grown up.
Surprisingly, we found that the play session was beneficial for boys but detrimental for girls. Boys were better at telling us they might like coffee as a grown up after they drank a juice box, thus satisfying their desire for juice. On the other hand, girls were more likely to choose a juice box for their grown up selves after they had drank one.
We think that this may have happened because the play session was enough to fulfil boy’s desires, but not long enough to fulfil girl’s desires. The play session involved sitting down at a table interacting with items with a female experimenter. We know from previous research that girls prefer to play with girls, and boys prefer to play with boys. In addition, girls enjoy this type of quiet play more than boys. So perhaps boys got bored of the items quite quickly, while for girls the 15 minutes of play was just enough to remind them of how much they love juice boxes, Play-Doh, picture books, sticker books and Play School.
So what does this all mean for parents? Well, our research might suggest that if you want to know what your preschooler really wants to eat for dinner, try asking them what they want to eat right now first!
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.