Museum of Science, Boston

Emotion private or public

When is it okay to show how you feel?

Young children understand that feeling a certain way (e.g. angry) sometimes makes you behave in a certain way (e.g. stomp your feet and yell). This study asks: when do children begin to understand the social rules that govern the expression of emotion, such as the different contexts (home versus public places) in which it is “ok” or “not ok” to express your emotions?

In this study, children, ages 3 to 9 years, are read stories about a protagonist named Sally. Some children hear stories in which Sally is at home with her mother. Other children hear stories in which Sally is in a public place (like a candy store) in the presence of many people. In each story, Sally expresses an emotion (either happiness, sadness, anger, fear, or disgust) in a way that might be considered disruptive to others. For example, she might clap her hands loudly, cry, or yell. After each story, we ask children: “Was it ok, or not ok, for Sally to do that”, “Why?” and “What did the other people do next?”

So far we’ve found that young children think that positive emotions are ok to express and negative emotions are not, regardless of context. Often they base their decisions on vague rules (e.g. “because you are not supposed to”). As they get older, children begin to anticipate the consequences of their expressions, and understand that different people will react in different ways.

This research can help adults better understand why children behave the way do in different contexts and how they expect those around them to respond.

Learn about other research related to Children's Understanding of Emotion.

This research is conducted by the Emotion Development Lab at Boston College

Try it at the Museum

When do I show how I feel?

What kinds of emotions does your child express in the Discovery Center?

Does the way your child expresses his or her emotions change depending on who they are interacting with (e.g. a family member, a museum volunteer, or another child)? Does it change depending on the situation (e.g. in a crowded exhibit versus a one-on-one situation)?

In what kind of situations does your child show his or her emotions, and when does he or she not show them?

Try it at Home

Thinking about stories

When reading stories to your child, pay attention to scenes in which a character expresses emotions. Are they alone, with friends or family, or among a group of strangers?

Ask your child: “Do you think it’s ok for this character to behave this way?” Before you turn the page, ask your child to predict how the other characters in the story will respond.