How Children’s Sense of Fairness Changes as They Age


Very young kids prefer equality over equity

Should a teacher reward a whole class for the good deeds of one student? What about the other side of the discipline picture: should a whole class be punished for the misdeeds of just a few students?

As adults, we care a lot about whether people receive their fair share of benefits, and whether those who commit offenses receive a fair degree of punishment. (Think, for example, about the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in the U.S., which popularized the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” This movement has widely been seen as a movement that worked to highlight unfair distributions of benefits or rewards.)

As we know, children also care about the way rewards and punishments are allocated. I study how children think about fair punishment and reward, and how that thinking changes as children develop and gain more experience in the social world. Understanding how children view fair allocations of punishments and rewards can give parents and teachers more insight into how children of different ages may react to common discipline practices.

Children’s views on fair distribution

Much of the research in this area has focused on how children think about fair ways to distribute rewarding items or consequences. For example, in a series of studies I conducted a few years ago with Peter Blake, a researcher at Boston University, and Paul Harris at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, three-to-eight-year-old children were given four stickers and had the chance to share any number they wanted with another child. Any stickers they didn’t share, they kept for themselves.

We found that the seven-to-eight-year-olds tended to share the stickers equally, while the younger children tended to keep most or all of the stickers for themselves. However, one finding was common to the preschoolers and the older elementary school children alike: all asserted that the stickers should be shared evenly.

We concluded that from an early age, children are aware of local norms related to fair sharing, but it’s not until age seven or eight that they consistently follow such norms. This was further corroborated by findings from another study that also shows that by around age eight, children in the U.S. follow norms of fairness even when it means having less for oneself.

There are many situations, however, where one person is more deserving of rewards than another person. How do children think about these types of scenarios?

In a study by Nicolas Baumard of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (a French university) and his colleagues, preschool-age children were told about two characters, one who worked hard to make a batch of cookies and another who slacked. The study participants then had the chance to hand out three cookies to the two characters in any way they wanted.

The most common response from the preschoolers was to give one cookie to the hard worker and one to the slacker. This approach to allocation involved not allocating the third cookie to either character. Later, when cued by the experimenter to hand out the last, unallocated cookie, nearly 70 percent of the children gave the last cookie to the harder worker.

What we notice in these findings is that young children understand that some people may be more deserving of reward than others, but they nonetheless often prefer to hand out rewards equally if given the chance. Other studies, such as this one, have demonstrated a shift from a preference for equality in early childhood to a preference for equity, or “deservingness-based” allocation, when children reach middle childhood.

-read more at Time



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