New research, however, is showing that toddlers as young as 3 years old are quite developed and discriminating in their understanding of others' intentions and their desire to help (or not help) other people.A recent study in Germany considered toddlers understanding of others' intentions and their subsequent helpful actions towards them. Here's what they did:
- children watched several scenarios where adult actors played several roles:
- helpfulness (taping together a drawing torn by someone else)
- harmfulness (purposely tearing another person's drawing)
- intention to harm (trying to tear another's drawing but not succeeding)
- accidental harmfulness (accidentally tearing another person's drawing)
The children then interacted with the adults in playing a game. The children's helpfulness toward the adults was gauged by whether or not they gave the adult a missing game piece.
As you might expect, children were helpful to those adults who showed helpfulness in the prior scenario and were not helpful to those adults who were harmful (tearing the drawing). More interestingly, however, was the fact that children were also helpful to those adults who were only accidentally harmful. The children also showed less helpfulness to those adults who had the intention to be harmful in the previous scenario (trying but not succeeding to tear the drawing).
This clearly implies that children as young as 3 can not only differentiate between helpful and harmful actions, but can also distinguish others' intentions. This may not seem like a big milestone on the surface, but when you think about it, understanding someone else's intentions is a very important skill as a human being.
Social interaction is one of the main ways we as humans advance our civilization. Working and cooperating with others is not only a good moral skill, it is crucial to our survival at the most basic level. We don't often think of this in our high-tech society but working with other people is a basic part of our existence. One key aspect of working with other people is understanding their intentions towards us and others.
Humans social interaction can be very complex and subtle. It is amazing that children as young as 3 can understand this complex world and be very savvy about who has good and bad intentions.
On a side note, this is probably also important for we parents to understand as well. Our toddlers are very adept at understanding our actions as well. If they think we have good intentions toward them (which hopefully all parents do!), they will be more likely to comply with our requests too.
Vaish A, Carpenter M, & Tomasello M (2010). Young children selectively avoid helping people with harmful intentions. Child development, 81 (6), 1661-9 PMID: 21077854