Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

It’s not until recently that we have discovered that altruism is present in children. Recent experiments have shown that so much of this sort of behaviour is learnt by toddlers from their parents, or is it nature?

When 18 month old children are offered a choice between raw broccoli and a salty cracker they will usually choose the cracker.

However, if the child sees an adult tasting the broccoli and saying, Yummy and eating the cracker and saying, Yuk they are able to recognise that the adult has a different preference to them.

Professor Alison Gopnik, a psychologist and philosopher from the University of California, Berkley, wanted to know what these children would do when asked to give the adult some food. She found the children offered the adult the broccoli, not the cracker.

Yet children who are just 12 months old will continue to offer the adult the cracker, even after seeing the adult saying, Yuk to this food.

Professor Gopnik says that by 18 months of age, children have gone beyond empathy to genuine altruism to help the adult get what they want.
Previously, psychologists had thought that moral development, including the trait of altruism, did not develop in children until much later.

Professor Gopnik, who was in Sydney in February to present a Sydney Ideas talk, believes that babies have a much longer period of helplessness so that it gives them time to learn about the world and other people. Babies brains are forming many new neural connections as a result of the observations and experience they are exposed to. In many ways, babies and young children are far more observant about their world than adults.

Professor Gopnik advises parents not to waste money on educational videos and flash cards but to allow babies and young children to learn the natural way by exploring and pretending.

Parents can be reassured that their children are wired up to develop an increasingly rich understanding of the complex world they live in. They can also gain an increased sense of enjoyment by exploring the world with their children and seeing the world through their eyes.

Adapted from The Sydney Morning Herald 25 February 2011

-Author Simone Wallington (B.A. Grad Dip Ed)

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