At what age do children start understanding fairness?

How do you know what is fair? Your parents tried teaching you, but the concept was still hard to grasp. Many children sort of learn it by heart, but that doesn‘t mean they understand what fairness means. But at what age do children start understanding fairness? A new study led by University of Queensland found the answer.

Children start understanding fairness and consequences of antisocial behaviour at around 7 years of age. Image credit: Ladislav Kopůnec Univerzon via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

We as adults think we understand fairness pretty well – it was us who created this concept in the first place anyway. But children are a little bit different. Scientists wanted to see when they start recognizing fairness as adults. They found that the magic number is actually – 7 years old. As young as 7 year old children have the same capacity as adults to make judgements on the anti-social behaviour of others. And it is not as simple as it may seem from the first glance. Children start taking into consideration multiple factors, some of which are competing, to judge a group of people and to form an informed opinion about it.

Scientists found that 4-5 year old children did not have a capacity to really understand fairness and its place in this social world. They divided children into categories by age and then divided each of those categories into red and yellow groups. Children were introduced to ‘Sally the Sheep’, a non-group-affiliated puppet, and then were shown a video, where various animals, who were assigned to one of the groups, were demonstrating prosocial or antisocial behaviour toward Sally. Children didn’t like members of their group treating Sally bad and didn’t want to belong to their group anymore.

In short, seven year olds were disappointed in their group and were not encouraged to behave antisocially themselves. Matti Wilks, leader of the research, said: “When we gave them stickers to distribute between two different groups they still did their best to allocate their resources as evenly as possible, regardless of the social behaviour. This indicates that children have a strong propensity for fairness even though the children saw members of their own group not sharing”. This, of course, doesn’t mean that younger children don’t care about antisocial behaviour. However, it is difficult for them to process information about the antisocial actions that they’re witnessing and connect them to their own situation in a group.

Fairness is something we all think we understand but cannot define. It is very important for our societies and peaceful coexistence. It is good to know that children as young as 7 years old understand it and have some feelings against antisocial behaviour.


Source: University of Queensland

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