Summary for Dunfield, Kuhlmeier, & Murphy (2013, PLOS ONE)
Find the paper here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0061804
A quote from Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers” of children’s television fame) recently spread across social media sites after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Rogers is quoted as saying that he learned from his mother that when the news covered scary events, he should “look for the helpers” because “you will always find people who are helping”.
It is heartening to note, then, that even in the first few years of life, children do notice the helpers around them, even in normal circumstances, and appear to really value these individuals.
There is a growing body of research demonstrating--in a controlled and systematic manner--that toddlers spontaneously help others in many situations. Control experiments suggest that they do not just do this because the objects and doors are fun or interesting; they truly are motivated to help and minimal to no encouragement is needed.
Further, when in situations in which two individuals need help, and a child can only help one, children selectively help those who are themselves helpful. That is, as early as three years of age children already appear to be engaging in a variant of the ‘golden rule’: ‘do unto others as they have done unto you’.
In our recent study, we found that not only can very young children directly return the same kind of help they have received, they can identify helpers and return favors with a variety of prosocial actions. (Here, the helpful individuals were puppets, actually, which are used in many developmental psychology studies because children seem to treat them as peers).
Children were presented with a puzzle that consisted of a picture that was covered in such a way to allow only a small section to be seen (e.g., a small red section of a picture of an apple). Children could not determine what was in the picture, but could interact with two puppets. One puppet announced that it knew what the picture was and proceeded to tell the child. Another puppet said that it also knew the picture, but was not going to tell. Both puppets spoke in happy, friendly tones, and looked alike; they only differed in their willingness to provide information.
Across two experiments, we found that by three years of age, children quickly recognized the helpful, informative puppet and subsequently helped it over the other puppet when both puppets reached for a far away toy and when both puppets wanted to know the answer to another puzzle, one for which only the child knew the answer.
Thus, even young children are able to pick out the helpers around them, even when the helpful act is as simple as teaching them something new about their world. They selectively interact with these individuals, returning the favor with their own prosocial acts.