Although honesty is generally taught as the best policy, around a child’s birthday and holidays, the little white lie goes a long way. After all, kids are expected to grin and giggle at an itchy wool sweater as if it were the toy-of-the-moment they had been begging for. After a few years of awkward laughter and whispered scolding from parents, children tend to learn that a forced exclamation of joy earns them more smiles and hugs than the truth does.
Although this landmark on the way to knowing the difference between making grandma happy and making grandma really happy may seem of no use outside the living room, research published in the May 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, shows that there is a strong connection between a preschool child’s reaction to an unwanted present and their ability to control other reactive behavior.
In a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and Texas A&M University, researchers Jessica E. Kieras, Renée M. Tobin, William G. Graziano, and Mary K. Rothbart found that children’s ability to put on a happy face when faced with a gift of an unattractive baby rattle was shown to predict their knowledge of the often-unspoken rules of acceptable behavior in society. The results speak to a child’s potential to develop “socially appropriate expressive behavior” and a visibly even temperament, according to the authors.
Children ranging in age from 3 to 5 years were asked how much they liked each toy in a set, and following their assessment, received either their favorite or least favorite toy of the set. After each child received their toy, the tester gauged the child’s response based on several observed reactions, including smiling, surprise, disappointment, disgust, and anger.
In order to relate these results to what society tells us about polite behavior, the children were then given a series of small tasks to perform, such as drawing a line at an unnaturally slow speed or holding down a pinball lever for extended lengths of time. The results of these simple tasks demonstrated the children’s level of ability to overcome their reactive instincts and fit their actions to suit the needs of their situation – a skill learned throughout childhood and of limitless importance in the adult world.
The results were not altogether surprising. “Children who performed well on behavioral measures of effortful control displayed similar amounts of positive affect after receiving desirable and undesirable gifts, whereas children scoring low on effortful control showed more positive affect after receiving the desirable gift than after receiving the undesirable gift,” the authors wrote. The children who were able to react similarly to the toy they wanted and the toy they didn’t want were more able to comply with the regulations of the performance tests.
So parents, keep nudging your kids to smile and say thank you; it may help them get that date, job, or house a few years down the line.