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Your Toddler Probably Has Something To Teach You About Right And Wrong

06/19/2015 05:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015
images by Tang Ming Tung

Parents consider teaching their children the difference between right and wrong to be an important duty, but a recent study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology suggests that children may have a little something to teach adults, too.

Thanks to an inventive set of experiments conducted via puppet, researchers in Germany and the U.K found that children may have an innate sense of restorative justice and even intervene on behalf of others in addition to themselves when something has gone wrong.

The Background

A growing body of research suggests that babies -- yes, babies -- actually possess a deep sense of right and wrong. For example, in one particularly illustrative 2010 experiment, babies who were shown plays that depicted either helpful puppets or mean puppets more often than not chose to play with the helpful puppet afterward, signaling a preference for those who do good.

But is the sense of right and wrong so strong in small children that they’re able to actually punish wrongdoers, even if they themselves weren’t personally harmed? In an experiment that builds on the puppet study from 2010, psychological sciences researcher Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester in the U.K. put the question to groups of three- and five-year-olds with the help of a new set of puppets.

The Setup

puppet justice

Children were directed to sit at the empty space of a table, shown above. To their left was a puppet that took on the “victim” role. Across from the child was the puppet who would play the “thief.” To the child’s right is the “cave,” where children could place objects like toys or cookies, so that no one else could access them.

The wooden pull cords that hang from the table can rotate the table clockwise, but they were only present on the child’s side and the thief’s side. The victim puppet had no way to rotate the table.

Researchers placed the child in a variety of different situations, in no particular order. In one experiment, the thief puppet would steal cookies or toys from the child. In another, the thief would steal fun stuff from the victim puppet. In a third situation, a third and completely different puppet would come to the table and take the goods away from either the victim or the child and either give them to the thief puppet or keep everything for himself.

Scientists were primarily interested in how the child reacted to these losses. Would he or she stick up for themselves and take the toys away from the thief by pulling the table cord? Would the children stick up for the victim puppet, too?

The Findings

Jensen and his co-researchers found that the children had a very strong sense of restorative justice, meaning they tried hard to return stolen items back to their original owner -- either to themselves or the victim puppets. Barring that, the children placed these items in the “cave,” where no one could enjoy them.

What’s remarkable is that the children in the experiment wanted to intervene on behalf of the victim puppet as much as they wanted to stick up for themselves when a thief stole cookies and toys.

"The biggest surprises to us were that the children did not treat harm to a puppet much differently than harm to themselves, and they did not distinguish between the different sources of harm,” Jensen told The Huffington Post. "They were more focused on who was harmed and less on norms and intent to harm."

The Takeaway

The children’s almost exclusive focus on the victim and how they were harmed has some very interesting implications on child discipline, said Jensen.

"Rather than punish children for wrong-doings or discuss the wrong-doings of others in punitive or perpetrator-focused ways, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as the solution,” he wrote in a statement about his research.

The Catch

The experiments, conducted among 112 three-year-olds and 79 five-year-olds, are the earliest demonstrations of the way young children can intervene on behalf of someone else, according to the researchers. However, the experiment doesn’t show whether children are primarily motivated to punish thieves as a way to deter the crime from happening again, or whether they’re simply serving those thieving puppets some “just deserts.”

There’s also a sobering lesson for adults in the way children viewed the victim puppet, as well, said Jensen -- particularly in how we report on and deal with crime that happens in our communities. Why, for instance, does the media tend to morbidly glorify the people who commit crimes and how they do it, rather than focus on damage to victims? Why has our justice system only recently started incorporating victim impact statements in criminal trial proceedings?

"It is interesting that children are more focused on the victim,” he mused. "I don’t know if we have misplaced our inherent sense of right and wrong. Our moral intuitions are shaped by our societies, but not erased and built from scratch."

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