Little Helpers

By Jenn Director Knudsen | March 1, 2006 | 0 comments

Think toddlers are simply self-centered whirling dervishes, capable only of making a mess, waiting to be cared for and picked up after? Think again.

A study recently published in Science suggests that preverbal toddlers as young as 18 months old understand when adults need their assistance and will do their best to help out, even for no reward. What’s more, the study found that some human-raised chimpanzees have similar altruistic tendencies. 

Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, studied the behavior of 24 18-month-old toddlers, as well as three three-year-old to five-year-old chimps raised by people. Twelve children made up the experimental group, and the 12 others comprised the control group. The researchers put the children from both groups in 10 different situations in which an adult stranger—Warneken himself—was having trouble attaining a goal.

Brad Aldridge

For example, in one experimental scenario, Warneken haphazardly dropped a clothespin and subtly indicated that he could not retrieve it without assistance. For the control group, the researcher again dropped the clothespin but gave no indication that he wanted to get it back.

Nearly every young child helped in at least one of the tasks. “It is noteworthy that they did so in almost all cases immediately,” and without any reward or praise for their altruism, Warneken and Tomasello write. And in six of the 10 tasks, children in the experimental group were significantly more likely to help than those in the control group, suggesting that kids can recognize when adults need their help and when they don’t. The chimpanzees also surprised the researchers by consistently helping with some of the tasks. But their altruistic capacity seemed limited only to certain scenarios, and the researchers note that the chimps’ basic helping skills may be attributed to their upbringing among people.

“A number of theorists have claimed that human beings cooperate with one another and help one another in ways not found in other animal species. This is almost certainly so,” the study concludes, “and the current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems.”

Early childhood educators take note: A child’s “natural” altruistic tendencies—likely inherited from humans’ and chimps’ common ancestor before the species split about six million years ago—should be recognized and cultivated, according to Warneken.

“Selfish as well as altruistic motives seem to be present early in ontogeny [development from embryo to adult],” he said in an interview. “Therefore, preschool teachers can build upon children’s proclivity to help others.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Jenn Director Knudsen co-owns 2B Writing Company. She holds a master’s from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. When not writing, she is busy with her two teenage daughters.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training
International House
December 9-10, 2016

Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training

This workshop is an introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), an empirically-supported training program based on the pioneering research of Kristin Neff and the clinical perspective of Chris Germer.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

How Pleasure Works By Paul Bloom Bloom explores a broad range of human pleasures from food to sex to religion to music. Bloom argues that human pleasure is not purely an instinctive, superficial, sensory reaction; it has a hidden depth and complexity.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement