Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: You’re taking little kid and big kid for ice cream. Little kid’s annoying big kid, who whacks little kid in response. You tell big kid that means no ice cream, and big kid insists, “That’s not fair!” Then little kid blows your mind by pleading big kid’s case or even sharing their own cone with big kid. Some new research sheds light on this situation and reveals that preschoolers and grade schoolers have vastly different ideas about what’s fair — like Batman vs. Superman different.
The researchers, writing in the journal Development Psychology, tested 123 kids between the ages of 4 and 10. They were allowed to assign fun jobs (like feeding a classroom hamster) and not-so-fun jobs (like cleaning up spilled juice) to their peers, who their “teachers” first designated as having behaved well or poorly. The younger kids handed out hamster feeding equally to well and poorly behaved kids because they didn’t want to make anyone feel sad; the older kids made the poorly behaved kids clean up the juice. Then, the teachers proposed punishments for a particular student who wouldn’t stop yapping during quiet time. The younger kids were all for keeping the whole class in from recess because of Big Mouth Jonny’s behavior, out of concern for his feelings; the older kids were all, “Nuh-uh” and totally willing to throw Big Mouth Jonny under the bus.
The study’s authors suggest that the younger kids are more concerned with compassion than justice, while the older kids’ more sophisticated sense of right and wrong makes them comfortable with someone suffering the consequences of their actions. So, if you’re worried that your own preschooler is a budding Socialist because they feel like all the good jobs should be evenly distributed, rest assured that they’ll probably grow out of it. Unless you live in Vermont, in which case who knows?