Silly Questions to Ask Children

I have been working on a project designed to measure a certain individual difference in children as early as 5 years of age. There are a number of concerns about the use of self-reports with young children so this has been an overarching concern in this project. To partially address this issue, we came up with a handful of items that would be useful for detecting unusual responses in children. These items might be used to identify children who did not understand how to use the response scale or flag children who were giving responses that would be considered invalid.  There is a cottage industry of these kinds of scales for adult personality inventories but fewer options for kids.  (And yes I know about those controversies in the literature over these kinds of scales.)

Truth be told, I like writing items and I think this is true for many researchers. I am curious about how people respond to all sorts of questions especially silly ones.  It is even better if the silly ones tap something interesting about personality or ask participants about dinosaurs.

Here are a few sample items:

1. How do you feel about getting shots from the doctor?

2. How do you feel about getting presents for your birthday?

And my favorite item ever….

3. How would you feel about being eaten by a T-Rex?

The fact that we have asked over 800 kids this last question is sort of ridiculous but it makes me happy. I predicted that kids should report negative responses for this one. This was true for the most part but 11.3% of the sample registered a positive response. In fact, the T-Rex item sparked a heated conversation in my household this morning. My spouse (AD) is a former school teacher and AD thought some kids might think it was cool to see a T-Rex. She thought it was a bad item. My youngest child (SD) thought it would be bad to be eaten by said T-Rex even if it was cool to see one in person. I think SD was on my side.

I have had enough controversy over the past few weeks so I wanted to move on from this breakfast conversation. Thus, I did what any sensible academic would do – I equivocated. I acknowledged that items usually reflect multiple sources of variance and all have some degree of error. I also conceded that this item might pick up on sensation seeking tendencies. There could be some kids who might find it thrilling to be eaten by a T-Rex.Then I took SD to school and cried over a large cup of coffee.

But I still like this item and I think most people would think it would suck to be eaten by a T-Rex. It might also be fun to crowd source the writing of additional items. Feel free to make suggestions.

PS: I want to acknowledge my two collaborators on this project – Michelle Harris and Kali Trzesniewski. They did all of the hard work collecting these data.


Author: mbdonnellan

Professor Social and Personality Psychology Texas A &M University

5 thoughts on “Silly Questions to Ask Children”

  1. This is so cool! I didn’t realize you guys were doing this. Not that this is a new problem re: measurement at younger ages, but these questions also highlight issues of age-specificity. It is so much easier to think of validity questions that likely show invariance across adulthood (“I occasionally tell a lie,” “I have never once engaged in QRPs,” etc.),but this is much more challenging with kids. The “feeling” questions you have will be dependent on emotional awareness/identification and cognitive development, for example.

    The T-Rex question is a tricky one, I agree, and think it may tap into sensation-seeking, but also may relate to the extent to which different kids use role play to process and cope with arousing emotions. This is something I’m sure the developmentalists figured out a long time ago, but I find it fascinating to see kids differentially engaging in approach/avoidance in the face of stimuli that, as adults, we might perceive as clearly avoidance-eliciting. It’s not just a sensation-seeking phenomenon, or lack of awareness of consequences, but rather a method of engaging with the fearful/uncertain phenomenon in order to understand and process it. Kids are so amazing. The problem, of course, is that you can’t differentiate these factors from one another when a specific child says, “Yeah, that sounds great, I’d love to be eaten by a T-Rex”.

    It all speaks to the challenge of creating age-generalized measures when you’re working with populations pre-adulthood (although I know people are also grappling with this for later life populations, as well). Particularly a problem if you want to do longitudinal studies. Theoretically, heterotypic continuity is such a cool concept, but it sure does muck up your measurement models.

  2. Can’t resist noting that, from the perspective of “we all gotta go sometime,” if I were choosing AMONG ways to die, getting eaten by a T-Rex would be pretty cool. (Probably a quick kill, with great excitement right before the bad part: “Look honey, a T-Re..” CHOMP)

  3. What about “How do you feel about recess?” or “How do you feel about summer vacation?” The latter especially could hinge on whether a student is a book worm or not, but recess would probably be fairly uniformly liked.

  4. These items can be pretty amusing. Recently I have seen ones concerning excessive bobsledding and riding animals at the zoo! Maybe try… “How do you feel when someone unexpectedly turns off the TV?” or “How do you feel about overly cooked vegetables?”

  5. Great idea!
    “How do you feel about getting candy?”, “How do you feel about going to the dentist?”, “How do you feel when mommy/daddy is mad at you?”, “How do you feel when you get a boo boo?” and finally “How do you feel about Peppa Pig?” (although this one might only work in the UK where LITERALLY ALL children love Peppa Pig).

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