Toddlers can show generosity towards others, study finds

So much for the ‘terrible twos’: Toddlers CAN show generosity towards others – especially if they have siblings, study finds

  • At 19 months old, children are willing to give away a favourite toy, University of Washington study shows
  • Toddlers who sleep with favourite teddy bear and are likely to be inconsolable when it goes missing, freely offer it to a stranger who appears to need it
  • Experts believe children learn generosity from their parents at a very young age 

Toddlers approaching the ‘terrible twos’ may seem to be a little ‘me, me, me’.

But even at such a young age, children have learned to help others and put their needs above their own.

At 19 months old, children are willing to give away their favourite toy, a study has found.

Toddlers who sleep with their favourite teddy bear, love it, and are likely to be inconsolable when it goes missing, will nonetheless freely offer it to a stranger who appears to need it.

Psychologists recruited 96 children to test the theory, asking parents to bring in their favourite items, which included cuddly animals, dolls, blankets, books or toys, and favourite bottle or sippy cup.

When the item was taken by a researcher, who dropped it and reached for it, up to 45 per cent of the 19-month-olds gave their most treasured belonging back to him.

Toddlers approaching the ‘terrible twos’ may seem to be a little ‘me, me, me’. But even at such a young age, children have learned to help others and put their needs above their own. At 19 months old, children are willing to give away their favourite toy, a study has found. (File image)

Professor Andrew Meltzoff, senior author of the study from the University of Washington, said: ‘Many psychology books include descriptions of children as being self-centred or “egocentric”.

‘Babies are often portrayed as if they are completely selfish. Both Freud and Piaget described infants as being focused on their own needs and desires.

‘But we are finding that even 19-month-old infants can show a remarkable capacity for generosity toward others.’

By 18 months of age, many children use possessive language like ‘mine’ or ‘yours’ and act possessively towards specific objects.

Researchers wanted to see for the first time if children so young could override these selfish impulses, showing the social, cooperative behaviour which differentiates human beings from closely related animals like chimpanzees.

A researcher, who got to know a small child over a few minutes playing with toys, sat opposite them across a table.

They took out the child’s favourite toy or bottle and appeared to drop it, before reaching for it for 20 seconds, spending half that time looking between the object and the child in a silent appeal for help.

In one experiment, eight out of 24 children picked up at least one of their beloved belongings and gave it to the psychologist.

They did so even though they had a clear path to act selfishly, grab the toy or bottle and run back to their parent, and despite receiving no reward for giving away their possessions.

In a separate experiment, almost a third of 30 children who slept with a favourite toy were willing to give it away.

When researchers tested whether 48 children were possessive over their favourite belongings, more than two-thirds displayed this behaviour.

Professor Andrew Meltzoff, senior author of the study from the University of Washington, said: ‘Many psychology books include descriptions of children as being self-centred or “egocentric”… but we are finding that even 19-month-old infants can show a remarkable capacity for generosity toward others.’ (File image)

They tended to stand on tiptoes to try to get a toy or bottle, lunge towards it or raise both arms in a non-verbal gesture to indicate ‘it’s mine, give it to me’.

Nonetheless the very young children were just as willing to give away their treasured possessions as food or neutral items like wooden blocks, which they were far less possessive over, according to the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

In an experiment involving 24 children, more than 45 per cent gave away their favourite toy or bottle, while only a third gave up sweet treats of banana slices and grapes.

Experts believe children learn generosity from their parents at a very young age – although only children without brothers and sisters were found to be slightly less keen to give things away.

Dr Rodolfo Barragan, first author of the study from the University of Washington, said: ‘These toddlers expressed a longing for their own toy by reaching out for it with their hands, rising on tiptoes, and even lunging at it!

‘Yet they shared it with the stranger but a moment later. We believe this striking ability to override possessive tendencies by sharing personally valued items is distinctive to humans, and our study shows that it is already in place by 19 months of age.’

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