How low can you go?: How age-appropriate research methods can help identify behaviours in children from an earlier age.

owen waddington

Owen Waddington, Psychology, University of Manchester, 2018 Cohort

Asking for help from others is something we do all the time, and children are certainly no strangers to it. They request help with their homework, cutting up their food, and even with the simplest of things like tying their shoelaces (thank goodness for Velcro). But there are rules in place when requesting help which, if breached, can land you in hot water. If I ask you to pass the salt at the dinner table, for example, you pretty much have to comply. On the other hand, if I ask you to drive to the local store to buy me more pepper, leaving your dinner to go cold, you are likely to complain and quite rightly so. Likewise, we know from The Boy Who Cried Wolf that making false claims, like asking for help when you do not actually need it, can end poorly. The upshot being that as adults we have learned when we should and should not ask others for help. But when does this awareness develop in children?

Armed with this question, my next step was to find a way to test it. There were many methods to choose from, all with their own pros and cons. But the problem with using more traditional methods, like interviewing for instance, is that they tend to be overly demanding for young children due to the child’s limited vocabulary. Honestly, is it fair to expect a 3-year-old to come up with an oral defence as to why they felt their request was justified? Surely not.

My solution was to use technology. Specifically, a camera which could track young children’s body movements. Rather than bombarding them with questions, I could instead let their bodies do the talking. You have, I’m sure, seen how a child reacts when they know they have done something wrong. They often put their hands in their pockets and shrink down to show they are sorry. If they were to do this when knowingly asking too much of someone (as in the pepper example above) then this might suggest they have started to learn the rules behind requesting, and at a younger age than expected compared to if I had interviewed them.

But with novel technology came novel challenges. Never before had I used this type of equipment, much less analysed its output. Moreover, although I was aware of it, I had never personally engaged in Open Science which was something I felt ought to happen for greater transparency in my research. Finally, having an external supervisor meant that scheduling meetings required considerable organisation and planning on my part. The solution however was to persevere and remember that a PhD is, if nothing else, a learning experience.

Having now progressed into the second year of my PhD I’m currently preparing to present some of these data at various conferences which fills me with both excitement and apprehension in equal measure. I say some data because, as my supervisors would say, research is more a marathon than a sprint and data collection can oftentimes, as with my study, take longer than initial projections. For my own sanity it was therefore crucial that I learned to be adaptable and patient when conducting my research, self-assured that it will all come together in the end.

With my second year also came the need for a second PhD study, and thus the cycle began anew. While trawling through the literature I started to take an interest in forgiveness and how children evaluate apologies. After all, we live in highly interdependent societies in which we rely on one another for pretty much everything. So what happens when social relationships break down? Sure, you might have actually gone and bought me that pepper but you will be reluctant to help me the next time I come calling. So how do we mend our relationship? The simplest way is to say sorry.

As before, I had to now think of a way of testing children’s sensitivity to apologies. Traditional methods would have me dream up hypothetical scenarios in which one person apologises to another for their wrongdoings before then asking children to cast judgement. But again, is it fair to expect little Alfie to simulate these abstract scenarios in his mind before questioning him about them?

More recent work leans toward placing the child in the scenario, as a witness. Having children watch the whole thing play out in front of their eyes helps prevent the need for them to use their imaginations. One problem however is that young children can often feel intimidated when interacting with adults or older children because they are often viewed as authority figures in the child’s eyes. A workaround was needed in which I could enact a scenario while ensuring that children felt comfortable enough to express themselves.

One technique was to use peers of a similar age to my participants. But training preschoolers would have been a nightmare, after all, an acting coach I am not. I settled instead on using ‘living’ puppets. This way, I had control over what was happening whilst also helping children feel like they were among equals. Finally, as for questioning children after they had witnessed the scenarios (which we know is not the best idea), I decided to instead keep things simple and just observe how my participants behaved around the naughty puppet. These fairly minor changes, I believe, make things easier for children thus giving them the best chance of showing us exactly what they are capable of from a younger age.

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