How about this new study from the Psychology department at the University of British Columbia? Researchers found that young children aged five to seven have stronger reactions to happy, smiling faces than angry ones. They perceive these positive facial expressions as more intense, and they’re more tuned in to the information conveyed by human beings who are beaming.
That’s a surprise, because apparently by adulthood we’re more attuned to negative faces than positive ones. Presumably, that’s because there’s survival value in picking up quickly on threats and other bad news. When someone is frowning, we know we ought to pay close attention to whatever it is they’re about to tell us. (If we’re lucky, it’s more on the scale of an outrageous dry-cleaning bill, as opposed to a massive alien invasion.)
So why do little kids show the opposite pattern? Why do they have a stronger response to happy smiles? Maybe it’s the way we’re raising them, suggests co-author Rebecca Todd in a press release, noting: “In North American culture we really give a lot of positive reinforcement to our kids.”
I guess what she’s saying is that our kids are used to receiving all their critical information – don’t pick your nose, keep your hands away from the stove, say thank you to Grandma – from a happy-looking face. We don’t scowl at them, but rather guide them with never-ending patience and sweetness. (Are you laughing as hard as I am right now? Hm, maybe that’s where the smiley-face business comes from.)
But seriously, as 21st-century parents go, we are a pretty nice sort. And I like the idea that we are capable of teaching them crucial life lessons without anger or physical force. That our children are getting a whole lot of loving-kindness in their lives. Maybe we do raise our voices once in a while – we’re not perfect. But at least our kids are learning that smiles are important.
If you ask me, that’s a crucial life lesson right there.