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Children Live in the Present Moment

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I have met children in many countries in Asia and Africa. Regardless of the country, children everywhere greeted me with a smile. In contrast, though, adults do not always respond with a smile. What could be the reason?

You could argue that children everywhere are happy, and that might be convincing, but is that really true? Children in developing countries live in situations that are physically and psychologically more challenging than that of children in affluent countries. Not only do they face health-related difficulties, such as hunger and not having enough to eat, contagious diseases and other illnesses, but they cannot attend school even if they want to and the cultural environment offers little in the way of toys and picture books. Even so, the children are always smiling.

Wherever I go in the world, children seem to look happy, but I have never thought too deeply about why. Recently, however, I did some research on feelings of self-esteem in children, which seems to offer insight into the reason. In young children, happiness derives from just being alive and having their family and friends nearby. Even infants who are refugees of war show smiles when they are held in their mother's arms. Children are happy to be simply loved by their mother. But as they grow, they come to see their own existence in relative terms. They also gain the ability to project into the future. Seeing themselves in relation to what is around them and learning to focus on the future is a joyous experience that proves their growth and development. However, at the same time that they gain this ability and by doing so, their self-efficacy, which has sustained them thus far and which is not influenced by their ability, is replaced by self-esteem that depends on one's own relative competence. In nursery school or kindergarten, children rarely have their abilities evaluated by others. In elementary school, however, grades, ability in sports, etc., are taken into consideration in relative evaluations that have nothing to do with the individual's will. And by viewing one's future more realistically, the individual learns that the feeling of happiness is supported by the particular emotion at the time, and depending on his or her particular social circumstances, it is not one that will continue into the future.

Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University, known for his groundbreaking research in primatology, explains the difference between humans and chimpanzees with a remarkable example based on a case of an adult chimpanzee at the Inuyama Primate Research Institute with a serious spinal cord injury that was unable to walk. Knowing the sensitivity and intelligence of chimpanzees, Professor Matsuzawa expected the chimpanzee to become depressed, listless and lose appetite. Although the chimpanzee "realized" that he could not walk, he did not become depressed, approached his daily activities with energy and showed no loss of appetite. The chimpanzee later recovered with surgery, but Professor Matsuzawa concluded from this that chimpanzees do not despair, only humans do. We might also say that human beings have the ability to see a self that extends temporally into the future, while chimpanzees do not. In other words, a human who is paralyzed below the waist foresees a difficult future and thus becomes depressed and loses appetite.

Compared with adults, children do not yet have the ability to see a self that extends temporally into the future. This, however, is not a liability, but rather an asset that allows them to view their future without gloom and fully enjoy the present feelings of happiness. That is why the children of the world can look happy so long as they are happy in the present.

CRN Honorary Director Noboru Kobayashi stated that, "Children are our future," meaning that children, not adults, would be living in the world of the future. Children, however, are unable to see into the future. This indicates that it is the responsibility of us adults to foresee the future for children as much as possible and to create a world where future adults (today's children) can live well.

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Sakakihara_Yoichi.bmp Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Deputy Director of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before assuming current post.
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