A wise person once said that intelligence is knowing that tomatoes are a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put them in fruit salad. You might have a different idea about what constitutes wisdom. When adults are asked what wisdom is, their answers tend to fall into five recurring categories: a cognitive component based around intelligence; insight (the ability to find original solutions); a reflective attitude; concern for others; and real-world problem-solving skills.
But before now, no-one has investigated what children understand by wisdom and how this changes as they get older. Judith Glück and her colleagues have surveyed 461 children (aged six to ten years) at two schools in rural Austria. Ideas about wisdom are obviously prone to cultural variation, but these new findings provide us with some useful initial clues as to how children think about this slippery concept.
The children were asked a mixture of closed and open-ended questions. For example, they were asked to write a few lines on what a wise person is like and they also read a list of 23 adjectives, indicating which ones applied to a typical wise person.
Overall, just over 70 per cent of the kids said they knew the term “wisdom”, rising from 43 per cent of the youngest to 92 per cent of the oldest year group. The majority of the children said they’d encountered the term in books, in conversations at home and in TV shows or films.
In contrast to adults, these children tended to focus mostly on the outward aspects of wisdom – especially cleverness (fluid intelligence, rather than concrete knowledge), and concern for others. There was an association with age here – all the children tended to mention the social aspect of wisdom, but a far greater proportion of the older than younger children mentioned the intelligent aspect. Older children were also more likely to link wisdom with older-age. Unfortunately the paper provides few examples of the kind of open-ended answers given by the children, despite the teasing title of the article.
More internal or abstract aspects of wisdom were apparently rarely mentioned by the children, including: having a reflective attitude, solving problems with original insight; having real-world problem-solving skills; and perspective taking. “Presumably such aspects are not yet part of the spontaneous ‘psychological repertoire’ of children at this age,” the researchers said.
Unsurprisingly, given that it prompted them, the children’s understanding of wisdom was more precocious when using the adjective list, with the children tending to tick items like “pensive” and “sensitive”, as well as terms like “friendly” and “clever”, which they’d mentioned in their open-ended answers.
Asked to name a wise person, the children were extremely generous, most often mentioning a grand-parent or a parent. Religious figures or figures from the media were rarely mentioned. The children showed a gender bias in their nominations, with boys being more likely to name male figures and girls being more likely to name females. Boys were also more likely to identify wise people as “astute” and girls to identify them as “beautiful” – perhaps a consequence of gender-stereotypes in the kind of media they were exposed to.
“We conclude from our findings that a basic understanding of the concept of wisdom is developed in and even before the elementary school years,” the researchers said. “However, especially the more complex aspects of the concept get much more differentiated in subsequent development.”
Glück, J., Bischof, B., and Siebenhüner, L. (2012). “Knows what is good and bad”, “Can teach you things”, “Does lots of crosswords”: Children’s knowledge about wisdom. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1-18 DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2011.631376