The Myth of Selfishness

A toddler tantruming when another child plays with one of their toys. Siblings bickering over who got the bigger piece of cake. Such scenarios leave parents wondering why children are so selfish. We assume that fairness is something that children must learn, often by being forced to share against their natural inclinations.

An international team of researchers, however, has discovered that even young children have an innate sense of fairness. Around their first birthday, infants show a strong preference for an equal division of resources among stuffed animals in play scenarios. Three-year-olds seem to recognize and practice the concept of equal work, equal reward. Early elementary children think that those who behave unfairly should be punished, even if they are not affected by the injustice. And by nine or 10 years old, children will opt to receive nothing rather than accept a grossly unfair distribution of candy that favors them over a peer.

Children are attuned to how their social world operates. They are hardwired to prefer helping over hindering behaviors and show a similar preference for fairness over unequal treatment. It’s not just that they don’t like being taken advantage of – although they don’t. They also don’t like to see other children disadvantaged. They will intervene to help a child who has received an unfair portion by contributing some of their own resources.

Researchers do believe that cultural norms play a role in how children’s early bias toward fairness develops into a more mature understanding of fair and unfair systems and behaviors. In cultures with a strong emphasis on equality, children protest actions that unfairly disadvantage them from a young age (4 years), whereas children in less egalitarian cultures may be as old as 10 before they object.

So why do siblings fight over one getting a slightly larger slice of cake? It’s because it violates their sense of fairness as equitable portions. They don’t want to be the one who is disadvantaged in a system they expect to treat each person the same. A similar logic applies to sharing food with persons they learn are going hungry, or providing a blanket to someone who is living on the streets and cold. They don’t want others to be disadvantaged either.

We can build on this innate sense of fairness by affirming children’s desire for equitable treatment and modeling more complex ideas of fairness for them to consider.

  • With younger children, we might explain why different kinds of gifts and support can be fair even though they are not identical because people are not exactly the same.
  • With older children, we might talk about reparations for slavery and whether it is fair to compensate people today for injustices suffered by their ancestors.

A sense of fairness is both innate and learned. By dispelling the myth of childhood selfishness, we honor a developmental process that inclines children toward ethical responsibility and spiritual wellbeing.

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