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Young Children Understand Fairness, But Act Likes Hypocrites Anyway

There's a disconnect common in children. They understand what's fair, but they can't move past their own self-interest.

Children don’t have to understand what the word hypocrisy means to know a double standard when they see one. According to psychotherapist Justin Lioi, who works mostly with fathers, kids seem to have a preternatural gift for pinpoint the spot at which unfairness touches duplicity. Why are kids so good at recognizing hypocrisy? Because they are action-oriented. By focussing on what daddy does rather than what he says, kids accidentally put themselves in the perfect spot to be moral line judges. There is a reason the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” became so popular. And there’s a reason why it’s particularly dangerous when used around kids.

“Teaching about keeping your hands to yourself and using your words when angry is all fine and good,” Lioi says, “but if you get upset and bang the table so hard that food goes flying or give a spanking, that is their takeaway.”

In other words, the average family home exists qw a surveillance state.

Lioi suspects children pick up unfairness as toddlers —studies show that toddlers distinguish the difference between fair and unfair young as 2-years-old — and come to understand hypocrisy better as they age and gain a grasp on language and empathy. However, additional research suggests that children don’t actually care that much about hypocrisy until they are roughly eight — at which point some kids start caring a lot. For this reason, six-year-olds often engage in unfair behavior themselves. There is a disconnect between understanding and action when self-interest is in play. They hold dad to account, but not themselves. Why is this? Hard to say. “It seems like there are a bunch of studies out there that document hypocritical behavior in kids, but not much in the way of studies that assess children’s awareness of and thinking about hypocrisy,” explains Craig Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.

Smith has taken a crack at the issue, confirming that kids’ understandings of fairness and their actions do not always match in 2013. Smith’s more recent work looks at how children between the ages of 4- and 10-years-old view distributive and retributive justice through how they are assigned rewarding and aversive jobs. Kids seems to have some preference for merit-based reward systems. But that doesn’t clear everything up. “In searching for other studies on children and hypocrisy, I was surprised at what an understudied issue it is,” Smith says. He also notes what though kids are often observed as having mixed-feelings in real-life scenarios, kids fare “poorly on tests that assess one’s explicit understanding of mixed feelings.” 

Put differently: Kids might be hypocrites because they don’t have coping mechanisms to handle their own self-interest, not because of any failure to understand basic notions of fairness or good play. For parents, that means that it’s critical to show children what it means to act of moral impulses even when doing so is inconvenient or counter to one’s desires. These are moments of potential learning.

“If dad speaks highly of women and feminism, but doesn’t take on any of the emotional labor of running the household, something very different than equality is being taught to children,” says Lioi, adding that parents ultimately have no choice but to lead by example if they don’t want to raise a hypocrite.