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Young Children Perceive Moral Intentions

Young Children Perceive Moral Intentions Researchers have discovered that 3-year-old children appear to have a moral compass.

Investigators found that a young child’s helpfulness is tempered when they see that the person they intend to help has harmed another person.

Moreover, a child is less helpful when they see that the object of their attention meant to harm another, even if no harm was done.

That’s the conclusion of two new studies of 3-year-olds conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The research appears in the November/December 2010 issue of the journal Child Development.

“In finding that children are quite sophisticated and discriminating helpers, our studies show that youngsters are sensitive not only to others’ moral behaviors, but also to the intentions behind those behaviors,” according to Amrisha Vaish, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at the institute and the studies’ lead author.

Researchers carried out two studies with almost 100 middle-class German 3-year-olds.

The children participated in several scenarios in which adult actors carried out various actions involving helpfulness (taping together a drawing that someone else tore), harmfulness (tearing another person’s drawing), intentions to harm (wanting to but not being able to tear another person’s drawing), and accidental harmfulness (accidentally tearing another’s drawing). The adults then began playing a game; children’s helpfulness was gauged by whether or not they gave the adults a game piece they were missing.

The studies found that the children helped an adult less not only when they saw that the person harmed another person, but also when they saw that the person intended to harm another person without causing actual harm.

When the adult was helpful and when he or she accidentally caused harm, the children were helpful, too. This suggests that children are sensitive not only to others’ moral behaviors, but also to the intentions behind them.

The research sheds light on our understanding of children’s moral development. And it raises questions about our assumptions that young children are not discriminating helpers, but help everyone in the same way.

Source: Society for Research in Child Development

Young Children Perceive Moral Intentions

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Young Children Perceive Moral Intentions. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 24, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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