PhotoThe concept of “fairness” is one that many parents of young children know well. Whether you’re doling out a punishment or doing something that a youngster doesn’t like or agree with, you’re sure to hear all about the unfairness of it all.

While you may write these complaints off as kids just being kids, a study from the University of Michigan suggests that young children actually do look at fairness much differently than adults, or even older children.

Emphasizing compassion

To put it in context, the researchers point to examples that are common in a school setting. “A teacher who rewards or punishes a whole class for the good deed or misdeed of just one student is more likely to be seen as fair by 4-to-5-year-olds but as less fair by older children,” said Craig Smith, a research investigator for the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan.

But while children in this age range might see this action as justifiable, older children and adults would completely disagree. Smith agrees, saying that “the data suggest that most older children and adults will feel that the common practice of punishing everyone for the misdeed of one or a few is unfair.”

But what exactly is behind this reaction from younger children? Are they simply less forgiving at this age? According to the study, not necessarily. In fact, the decision to punish everyone actually comes down to compassion. The researchers found that young children were hesitant to single out one person when it came to providing discipline.

This rationale is backed up in another line of questioning that researchers used. They asked children between the ages of 4 and 10 the best way to dispense punishments and rewards. Overwhelmingly, the children said the best way was for everyone to receive the same thing. Smith adds that, over time, children develop a sense that people get what they deserve, which changes the notion of fairness.

The full study has been published in the journal Developmental Psychology

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