Are 3-year-olds mind-reading, justice-seeking superheroes?

The puppets and table with its "cave" used during the study.

Story highlights

  • A new study shows 3-year-olds have intuitive empathy and restorative justice
  • Parents can encourage empathy in their children in multiple ways

(CNN)If you want to learn the building blocks of empathy and a sense of justice, just look to the nearest 3-year-old.

While these two traits seem like they might require years of experience and observation to acquire, a new study published in Current Biology reveals that children as young as 3 have a strong sense of restorative justice.
Researchers in Germany observed individual 3- and 5-year-olds in a situation in which they sat at a round table with puppets and a few items, such as cookies or toys. The children had the ability to pull a rope to turn the table. One section of the table was dubbed "the cave," which was inaccessible and could hide the items.
    Different scenarios were introduced: theft, unfairness and loss. These scenarios happened to the child or a puppet. In response, the children were allowed to remove the items by pulling them into the cave or prevent one of the puppets who exhibited one of these scenarios from gaining a reward.
    The puppets and table with its "cave" used during the study.
    The researchers were surprised to see that the 3-year-olds focused on harm and the victim. Whether it was theft, unfairness or loss, they were most concerned about the victim. The pre-schoolers were just as willing to intervene on behalf of a puppet as if the injustice had been done to them personally.
    The 3-year-olds also preferred to return items to the original owner, or "victim," rather than remove it entirely. When only given the option to punish a puppet, rather than restore the stolen item, they would just cry. On the other hand, the 5-year-olds were more aware of the idea of punishment and less distressed when only the punishment option was presented.
    Researcher Keith Jensen said that the best word to describe what the 3-year-olds exhibited was the German word Einfühlung, which means "feeling into others." It represents something stronger than empathy, he said. "We all have a psychological tool kit -- for good, for bad and for how we deal with others," he said. "This shows us that if a child sees wrongdoing, focus the attention on who was wronged rather than what the wrongdoer did."

    Origins of empathy

    What are the origins of this intuitive sense of empathy?
    Family environment and cognitive development, according to Dr. Norma Feshbach. There must be a family context that allows and encourages empathy for it to flourish. And cognitively, children must have a physiological readiness that allows them to see someone in an emotional state and elicit a similar response. This also enables them to see the world from another perspective, and feel and experience those emotions.
    Feshbach, a professor at UCLA, started researching empathy in children in the 1960s. Together, she and her husband studied empathy training regulating aggression in elementary school children. They also wrote intuitive lesson plans and guides for teachers to use in the classroom that encouraged empathy in their students without being obvious.
    She recommended using emotional words about characters when telling stories to children. This makes them comfortable in expressing emotions rather than gravitating toward destructive action as a response to something that makes them emotional. She also encouraged teachers to allow children an opportunity to explore and gently learn rules rather than deliver harsh punishments for misbehavior. "How would you feel if this was done to you?" was a common question and classroom exercise for this.
    Exposing children to empathy like this resulted in low aggression, cooperating with peers and teachers, strong social development, and greater cognitive performance and achievement, Feshbach said.

    What parents can do

    Bridgette Walker, mother to 3-year-old Vera and 5-year-old Maebe, started noticing a sense of empathy in Vera when she was only 2 and a half years old.
    Vera started feeding Lucy, the family cat, on her own, filling up the food bowl when it was empty. When she saw her mother watching, Vera explained that Lucy was really hungry and needed extra food because she was growing. Walker says Vera has also shown empathy towards her and Maebe.
    "She will study my face and ask, 'Are you happy? Are you sad?'" Walker said. "So we've had a lot of conversations about how we feel and the faces we make when we have a particular emotion."
    Walker herself remembered experiencing many emotions as a child and she felt horrible when the adults around her didn't seem to understand. "Ever since [my children] were babies, I've tried to give them the words to describe what they are feeling," she said. "They encounter a million frustrations each day as they try to figure out how to function in a world that is made for adults."
    Walker has many things that she does with her children to encourage empathy and understanding as they grow. She suggests letting children learn from natural consequences rather than focusing on punishments -- "if they spill, give them a towel so they can wipe it up." If your child has a tantrum, talk about it with them and acknowledge what happened and how they're feeling, she said.
    And perhaps the old standby of teaching by example remains one of the most powerful. "Be the person that you want them to be," Walker said. "If you want your kids to speak politely to others, speak politely to them. And if you want them to treat people with respect, treat them respectfully."