Children as young as 3 can apparently tell the difference between whining and when someone has a valid reason to be upset, according to new research, which notes the toddler will respond with sympathy only when it is truly deserved.
The experiment involved 48 children, split evenly between girls and boys, from 36 to 39 months old.
Researchers recorded the reactions of each child as he or she witnessed an adult acting upset in one of three contexts: When the distress was justified, when it was unjustified, and when the cause of the distress was unknown.
During the experiment, two adults met with each child. One of the adults would display distress by frowning, whimpering, or pouting. The distress was in response to specific incidents of apparent physical harm, material loss, or unfairness.
Children who witnessed the adult being upset due to a real harm or injustice showed concern for him, intervened on his behalf, and checked on him when he later expressed distress out of their view, according to the researchers.
Among the situations the children witnessed included one adult dropping a toy box lid on another adult’s hand or one adult getting a shirt sleeve snagged on the toy box lid; one adult finding three extra marbles and not sharing them with another adult; and one adult demonstrating the use of scissors to another adult or destroying the other adult’s drawing by cutting it in half.
When a child witnessed an adult in a justifiably distressing incident, the child’s face showed concern, whereas the child’s expression indicated he was “checking” when the incident did not warrant distress or the adult was out of sight but could be heard, the study said.
In subsequent tests, an adult was given one helium balloon and the child was given two.
When the adult “accidentally” let go of his helium balloon and became distressed, the child would offer a balloon more quickly to the adult if the child had previously seen him upset due to true harm rather than an inconvenience, according to the study.
“These very young children really considered what was happening in a given situation rather than automatically responding with sympathy to another person apparently in distress,” said the study’s lead author, doctoral student Robert Hepach of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“In most instances, they identified unfounded distress and they responded in a manner appropriate for the specific situation.”
The study was published online in the journal Developmental Psychology.
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