The following is excerpted from an online article posted by ScienceDaily.
Trying something new is a risk every child undertakes as they explore and learn about the world. While risk can be costly, it can also pay off in rewards or knowledge. But new research suggests children without predictable support from the adults in their lives are less willing to take those risks — and reap those rewards.
“If you’re in a resource-rich environment — meaning for a child that you’re safe, your meals are coming, someone is at home for you, you’re surrounded by adults that are protecting you — you’ll try new things,” says Seth Pollak, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of psychology who studies childhood adversity. “And that’s how you discover and learn about the world.”
But not every exploration will be rewarding and, according to a new study of childhood exploration and parental predictability that Pollak and collaborators today published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, kids who don’t believe they have the support of reliable parents are less willing to risk the unknown.
The researchers studied decisions that more than 150 children ages 10 to 13 made while playing games designed by C. Shawn Green, a UW-Madison psychology professor. The games offered the children opportunities to risk a little and explore for potential gains.
The kids and their parents also participated in a battery of surveys and assessments. The researchers gauged the stress the children experience and the predictability of their lives — based on factors like parental job loss, divorce, death or illness in the family, and changing schools and homes — as well as children’s own views about whether or not their parents were reliable and predictable.
The less reliable and predictable the kids felt their parents were, the less likely they were to take exploratory risks in the games they played.
“I think it makes sense,” Pollak says. “Their brains are doing exactly what we want our brains to do, right? If you really feel things are not predictable and you don’t know how things are going to land, you’d stick to what works and what’s familiar. You wouldn’t waste your resources on something that could all fall apart.”
The researchers ran their experiments first with a group of nearly 80 kids, then repeated it with a second group of just over 80 more to confirm their results.