Preschool Age Children Gauge What's 'Fair' Differently Than Adults

First Posted: Feb 22, 2016 04:34 PM EST

What do children really think is fair when it comes to discipline and rewards?

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan found that preschool-age children were more likely to punish an entire group of people, even if just one individual who belonged to the group was at fault. This, researchers say, does not mean that younger children are harsher, but perhaps they have a different idea of what is fair. In fact, they may actually be motivated by compassion to respond the way they do.

"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 research investigator Craig Smith of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development, in a news release. "Likewise, 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."

Researchers asked children ages 4 through 10 the fairest way to hand out rewards and punishments. The 4-to-5-year-olds overwhelmingly chose to give everyone the same things regardless of merit.

In the elementary school years, this shifts to the more mature view that people should get what they deserve, and it's unfair to reward or punish an entire group for the good or bad actions of one person. This is the view that most adults take, Smith said.

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