Kindness, generosity, and fairness make up the basis for prosocial interactions. Teaching children about fairness can seem forced- afterall, you want your children to be genuinely fair-minded. Babies naturally prefer fair, selfless individuals, but they are easily influenced by others’ (namely their parents’) behavior.
How do we know that babies understand fairness?
A study explored how babies would react to an adult unequally dividing food. Babies communicate through how long they stare at something. Generally, a longer stare means something has violated their expectations. Almost all participating babies (as young as 4 months!) were surprised when adults distributed food unequally. Given background information, babies demonstrated a clear preference for fair distributor over unfair distributor.
Fairness as a attribute
Babies not only understand the concept of fairness, but can attribute fairness based on an individual’s actions. Researchers confirmed this idea: babies looked surprised when previously unfair characters helped others and vice versa. Babies can quickly associate behavior with individuals. This is important because modelling incorrect behavior can negatively reinforce the idea that unfair behavior is tolerated.
Relationships between fairness and generosity
Your baby’s perception of fairness and sharing are linked- their expectations of others’ sharing behaviors dictates your baby’s generosity. A study explored this idea by asking babies to share one of two toys with a stranger. Interestingly, babies who expected fairness shared their preferred toy, while babies who didn’t shared their less preferred toy.
Try this out: You can see if your baby views fairness as normal. Simply give your baby two toys (their favorite toy and another) and ask for a toy. In the study, understanding fairness was represented by sharing the preferred toy.
Experiences are important
Babies and infants are very socially perceptive and their early experiences matter; they build their sense of fairness through experiences. Babies need to be exposed to more experiences where people equally divide resources to develop a stronger grasp of fairness. Indirect interactions (that your baby observes) also matter! Although babies naturally assume fairness, their experiences can easily normalize an unfair scenario and values too.