Why We Age, According To Children

A lot of kids, oblivious to the relentless ravages of time, believe that birthday parties cause aging. cvalbar/Shutterstock

According to preschoolers, there’s one simple trick you can use to avoid getting old. They haven’t stumbled on the Fountain of Youth, nor some scientific breakthrough involving telomeres, it just involves avoiding birthday parties. Easy.

A new study by a team of developmental psychologists found that a surprisingly high proportion of little kids believe that birthday parties cause aging. The research can be found in the journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality.

In the words of the researchers, “Children interpret the birthday party as playing a causal role in the aging process.” 

They quizzed 99 US children aged between 3 and 5 years on numerous issues relating to age, birthdays, and their perceptions of aging. For the main part of the study, they posed numerous different scenarios where a child was about to have their third birthday. In the first scenario, the child had no party on their birthday. For the second story, the kid had two parties; and for the third story (the control), the child was simply turning three. They were then asked what age the child would be following these different scenarios.

Most of the kids, 72 percent, correctly said the child would turn three in the third control scenario. However, for the no party story, 28 percent of kids thought the child would not turn three and just stay at age two. A further 9 percent thought that the lack of party would actually mean he or she would turn four.

Nevertheless, the children in the study did have a pretty good idea of their own age, with 44 out of 48 answering correctly when asked their age.

These adorable findings are much more than a cutesy bit of research to warm your heart. The results provide some fascinating insight into how humans develop their sense of life, time, and age. As a species all too aware of our own mortality, that’s pretty important.

The researchers say it isn’t clear why kids think this way, although they say it almost certainly has something to do with “the ubiquitous human tendency” to mistake causation for co-occurrence." Even grown-up adults also appear to have a strong need to seek explanations and meaning in personal events. Particularly in the instance of kids and birthdays, children are yet to experience or understand that age and time is a continuum. So far, their experience has only told them that it’s associated with a particular event involving candles, cakes, and other screaming children.

The study notes, “In the absence of easily clear physical, biological, or verbal cues to what causes changes in age, children appear to turn to an event that is directly correlated with cultural reference to the aging process – the birthday party.”

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