Although small children love to help, you might think the support they can offer is pretty basic – you ask them to do something and they do it. In fact, a new research paper reveals a remarkable level of sophistication in the helping behaviour of three-year-olds. They take your ultimate goal into account, and if they think they know better than you how to reach that goal, they’ll help you in their own way – a skill that the researchers call “paternalistic helping”.
Nineteen three-year-olds took part in an initial study in which pairs of objects were within reach, one item functional (e.g. a cup), the other broken (e.g. a cup with a hole in the bottom). Whenever an experimenter pointed to and asked for the dysfunctional object in a pair (e.g. “Could you pass me that cup so that I can pour some water?”), the key test was whether the child would ignore the specific request and instead pass the functional equivalent.
Alia Martin and Kristina Olson at Yale university found that the children passed a requested object on 97.4 per cent of trials when the experimenter asked for the functional object in a pair. In the critical test, this dropped to 31.6 per cent when the experimenter requested a dysfunctional object. Stated differently, nearly 70 per cent of the time that an experimenter specifically requested a dud tool, the little children ignored what was asked for and instead provided a working alternative (and they often provided a spontaneous explanation for their actions).
What if kids just prefer working objects and are more likely to hand those over, regardless of the circumstances? To check this, a second study with more three-year-olds involved the experimenter requesting working or dud objects in order to place them in a rubbish bin (rather than for a specific purpose). In this case, the kids tended to pass along whatever the researchers asked for, broken or not.
A final study provided an even more impressive demonstration of three-year-olds’ helping behaviour. This time, the experimenter sometimes asked for dud objects for unconventional uses – e.g. a cup to cut a circle in play dough (in which case the hole in its bottom doesn’t matter). As before, the children usually ignored requests for dud objects for conventional uses, giving a working alternative instead. But if a requested dysfunctional item was perfectly useful for an unconventional task, they happily passed it over. The children seemed to be able to think in sophisticated fashion about the adult’s ultimate goal and whether or not the object they wanted could be used in the service of that goal.
“Our results demonstrate that within the first few years of life children already have a remarkably advanced understanding of helping,” Martin and Olson concluded. “One that distinguishes between immediate and end goals – and can select an appropriately helpful action even when it requires overriding an explicit request.”
Martin, A., and Olson, K. (2013). When Kids Know Better: Paternalistic Helping in 3-Year-Old Children. Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0031715
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