Whether they’re flashy North West-style blowouts or more modest sheet cake-and-balloons affairs, birthday parties are a major ritual for many kids around the world.
But a late contender for the most damned delightful research study of 2017 suggests the wee-est revelers don’t actually understand all that much about how the whole birthday thing works.
Three-year-olds generally know how old they are, and many seem to grasp the idea that aging can’t be controlled by non-biological forces. (Like, desire. Or magic.)
But a lot of them also believe their birthday parties play a causal role in the aging process — a misconception that continues on for many 4-year-olds and even some 5-year-olds.
In other words, 3-year-olds generally believe they are a year older because of their birthday parties, and not the other way around.
“It helps us understand children’s thinking,” study author Jacqueline Woolley, chair of the department of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an e-mail to HuffPost. “We see that they sometimes grab ahold of salient physical or social events to explain complex, unobservable phenomena.”
Woolley undertook the study — published earlier this month in the journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality — after a reporter (not this one) contacted her looking for more information about what children understood about their own birthdays. She realized that developmental psychologists hadn’t really looked into it at all, so she conducted two small studies with 99 Texas-area preschoolers to explore their thoughts on aging and birthdays.
In one part of the investigation, kids were told three stories: One about a child who had no party on his or her birthday, one about a child who had two parties, and a third about a child who was simply turning 3-years-old (the control, in this case). Wooley then asked the preschoolers to indicate how old that hypothetical child was by either holding up the right number of fingers or answering out loud. More than half said that if there was no party, the kid stayed 2-years-old, while a good chunk believed that two parties meant the child would be 4 ... or 5.
Aside from turning up some adorable nuggets (plenty of 3-year-olds got their own ages wrong, and some found it tricky to count on their fingers), Wooley thinks the study offers an interesting glimpse into how little brains grapple with aging and the cultural rituals foisted upon them.
“It involves kids’ attempts at understanding a tricky phenomenon —what makes them get older,” she said. “So we get a peek into children’s causal reasoning processes, their basic biological understanding, and the fascinating ways children explain their world.”
But Wooley says parents of toddlers needn’t worry their kiddos are destined to spend their whole lives confused about the relationship between parties and aging.
“I don’t think we need to explain all of this to our kids — they will figure it out in time,” she said. “The only practical thing I can think of is that if, for some reason, parents are unable to hold a birthday party for their child — or if the party is delayed and the child seems overly concerned — it may help to remind the child that they’ve still turned 3, or 4, or whatever their new age is.”