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.”

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About The Author

Jenn Director Knudsen is Director of Special Projects at Pacific Northwest College of Art. She studied at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is also the mother of two daughters.


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