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Children are amazing and they grow up to think of amazing things. Teams of inspired researchers have been trying to understand what tiny – I mean tiny – babies know about right and wrong. The work is magnificent and courageous. If you’ve ever been involved in a research project you know it takes time and money to do that project. Now, try to imagine the guts this team had to take a chance on this project. They tested three month old babies and toddlers. Karen Wynn, Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom showed 3-month olds a puppet show where a googly-eyed triangle helped to push a googly-eyed circle up the hill and an unhelpful square pushed the circle down the hill while it was trying to go up. They had the babies watch the show. They wanted to test if the babies liked the helpful triangle over the unhelpful square.

Here is the inspired part of the study. We know from a couple of decades of research with infants that they look longer at things they prefer than they look at things they do not. Think of comparing how long the baby looks at mom verses a stranger. It is pretty fancy research because you have to know how long the baby needs roughly to figure out what they are looking at before you start comparing the length of the look. Some babies look longer than others.

Back to the results: the 3-month old babies preferred the helpful character over the unhelpful one. [click here to go to another post on helping] Those babies were old enough to reach for the preferred toy – the helpful triangle – over the unhelpful square. You can go to this page to learn about more of the research there is a video of the googly-eyed play. Here is a video from a another study of helping. It is really fun.

So, even tiny babies get it. There is more! Young children have an innate sense of fair and unfair and they prefer fairness in others. Fairly early children start keeping track of who deserves to be helped and will even take steps to correct unfairness. Studies find that they will help someone helpful but are less likely to help unhelpful adults. There are limits. Very young children (under age 7 or 8) do not hesitate when they have a chance to have the better part of unfair distribution. Click here to read a summary of several studies.

Here are some wonderful videos of babies helping and problem solving. Kids really are motivated to keep the play going and to be helpful. Get down to their level. See if the you can get them engaged in something that matters. What they want more than anything is to master the task because it feels good.

Keep the play going to get the job done! Pay attention to what children are seeing in your home. Do they see adults being helpful and fair? Do they see adults taking advantage of each other, getting away with it, or getting in the way?

Do you want to be a part of the work? Check out the lab in Cambridge. They’d love for you to get involved. Click here.