Will My Kid be Mean?
Most of us with one or more little ones under the age of two take certain things for granted. We believe in the innocence of infants. While our babies are fully capable of registering discomfort, anger, or frustration, we certainly don’t believe that our little ones are actually capable of being mean. But a new study, led by J. Kiley Hamlin, and published in Psychological Science, reports that given a choice, infants as young as 9 months will like a character who is mean to another character the baby doesn’t like. In other words, babies adopt the code that the enemy of my enemy can be my friend.
Here’s how the experiment was constructed. There were 128 babies with 64 each in a 9 month or 14 month old group. They were asked to pick which one of two foods they liked. The choices were crackers and green beans, and if you think the carbs won, take heart; 42% picked green beans. Next they watched two rabbit characters with different colored shirts come into view and the rabbit picked one of the foods. Here’s a Video showing the puppet character’s food preference.
Next, the babies were shown one of the rabbits in a scene with two dogs. The rabbit has a ball, but when it is dropped, one of the dogs intervenes. The other dog remains neutral. The harmer dog is mean, picks up the dropped ball and leaves the scene. Here’s the Video showing the new character being mean).
Predictably, when one of the dogs behaved as a helper and the food preference was the same as baby’s, 82% liked the helper. But surprisingly, if the behavior of the mean dog was toward the rabbit with a food preference different than the baby, 88% liked the mean dog best!
Jeez, it’s just green beans or crackers, you say; nothing as earthshaking as social prejudice and aggression. But, as an article in the Smithsonian pointed out, there is an inborn reflex to place punishment toward differences just above neutrality and even above the preference to support someone similar.
As parents, what can we do? Eating their vegetables didn’t make these babies any nicer. How do our children learn to minimize support for meanness and maximize support for THINKING ABOUT OUR CHOICES. We know that our parenting, teaching and guidance can channel our inborn temperament toward higher levels of productive behavior. I suggest the following equation:
Temperament + Teaching = Thoughtfulness of Response
As we integrate childrens’ inborn assets with practice to develop language, knowledge, talents and self-discipline, we can influence social perception and judgment. In fact, the longest tail of learning is around judgment and decision-making, determining right and wrong. It takes us until approximately age 25 to finalize our moral compass. How lucky we are that we have every day of every year of childhood to stay on the mission of channeling temperament through our teaching to yield thoughtful responses to differences at home and in the world.