"A teacher who rewards or punishes a whole class for the good deed or misdeed of just one student is more likely to be seen as fair by 4-to-5-year-olds but as less fair by older children," says Craig Smith. (Credit: iStockphoto)

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What’s fair? Little kids and adults disagree

Preschool children think it’s more fair to punish an entire group that just the one child who’s at fault. But that attitude usually begins to fade by the time they get to elementary school.

“A teacher who rewards or punishes a whole class for the good deed or misdeed of just one student is more likely to be seen as fair by 4-to-5-year-olds but as less fair by older children,” says research investigator Craig Smith of the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan.

“Likewise, the data suggest that most older children and adults will feel that the common practice of punishing everyone for the misdeed of one or a few is unfair.”

The findings of a new study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, show that preschool-age children are more apt to punish groups of people even if only one person in the group has done something wrong.

[Skittle test: When do kids around the world say ‘no fair’?]

But, this doesn’t mean the little ones are necessarily harsher as people. They just have a different idea of what’s fair, Smith says.

What might be going on is they are actually motivated by compassion. Based on feedback from the children in the study, they seemed reluctant to single out one person in a group for discipline.

For the study, researchers asked children ages 4 through 10 the fairest way to hand out rewards and punishments. The 4-to-5-year-olds overwhelmingly chose to give everyone the same things, regardless of merit.

But once children get into elementary school, their attitudes shift to the more mature view that people should get what they deserve—and it’s unfair to reward or punish an entire group for the good or bad actions of one person—a view most adults take, Smith says.

Source: University of Michigan

DOI: 10.1037/a0040069

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