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Life Isn't Fair, But Kids Are

Anyone who’s been around small kids knows they have an overdeveloped sense of fairness. “That isn’t fair!” is the rallying cry of the affronted child.

Often, their notions of “fair” seem to be completely congruent with getting their own way. My daughters believe that being asked to clean their room or eat their veggies is unfair. I don’t think fairness really enters into the picture on those ones.

On other things, though, my kids are highly attuned fairness detectors. They know when one kid has too long a turn on the swing, and how the ice cream should be divvied up so everyone gets an equal treat. They’re acutely conscious of who left the markers out, and whose job it should be to pick them up.

So I shouldn’t be surprised by a new Harvard study that shows kids are deeply committed to fairness in play.

The study involved giving kids the opportunity to dole out candy to themselves and one other child.

Each child is offered a number of pieces of candy, and one kid decides for both of them whether to accept or reject the offer. Young kids would accept it if it were favorable to them, ie: if they’re getting at least as much candy as the other kid. They’d choose no candy at all over getting only one piece when their buddy was getting four though. Which is not at all shocking to me as the mother of a four-year-old. Mine would rather throw her treat on the floor and scream than accept that her sister has a bit more. Or even a different color of the same thing.

What was surprising was the behavior of slightly older kids. Eight-year-olds in this system are likely to reject an unfair offer even if it benefits them. They’ll turn down four pieces of candy if the other kid is only getting one.

Scientists aren’t sure what’s motivating this:

In the years ahead, the researchers hope to clarify the motivations behind the behavior they observed in the children. It could be that the participants in the study made their decisions based on internalized norms of fairness. It’s also possible, however, that the children were concerned not with enforcing equity, but with preserving their reputations.

“They could be considering the audience around them and saying, ‘I don’t want to look like I’m being selfish by accepting all this candy. I know that I’ll reap future benefits by rejecting now,’” said Blake. “An awareness of reputation could be emerging. And that’s the next big step to test.”

What do you think? Are kids selfishly motivated by a sense of their own reputation, or are they genuinely trying to be fair? I think they’re really driven by fairness. Kids that age can be incredibly sensitive to those around them. They have a very firm sense of right and wrong, and being on the side of rightness is important to them.

Photo: AnnieGreenSprings

 

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