We all want to believe children are innocent creatures soaking up information from their surroundings. However, children are born with instincts that shape the way they see the world.
For example, young kids are naturally self-centered. The ability to take others’ perspective is something they have to develop through experience.
But there’s another, more disturbing instinct: Tribalism. Not just a preference for those who look and act like us but even a desire to see those not like us treated badly.
In a University of Toronto study, infants as young as six months old showed a preference for members of their own race and against members of different races. And this us vs. them mentality extends beyond physical differences.
Hamlin, at the University of British Columbia, introduced a new variable to her puppet shows. When the puppet and baby liked different snacks, the baby wasn’t just less kind. She often wanted the puppet that did not share her snack preference punished.
“Babies did seem to care more about who was like them than they cared about niceness and meanness,” says Hamlin.
“So here’s a real forerunner, evident as early as six months of age, of what becomes ugly prejudice, discrimination and so on later on,” says Tom Lickona.
No surprise, much of the hard work of cultivating a more consistent kindness in children — especially toward people who aren’t like them — falls to parents, teachers, and the rest of us grown-ups.
Turns out, kindness is complicated. We’re born with the wiring for both kindness and cruelty, so altruism is not inevitable. It’s a skill and a habit that we have the power — and responsibility — to foster, one good deed at a time.