Are toddlers more similar to adults than we realize?

The Millennial generation has inspired a number of names over the years, from Generation Y to Trophy Kids. The term ‘Trophy Kids’ comes from a common conception that millennials are spoiled, entitled, and seek acknowledgment as “winners” from a young age just for participating in an activity. Many older generations believe that children should only be rewarded for achieving a goal through hard work, and that kids will not learn this value if they are awarded medals for “just showing up” every time. In contrast to this belief, recent research shows that children from a young age may not favor all types of “winners”, but rather individuals that “win” using appropriate means.   

A recent article in NPR describes how young children are similar to adults in that they notice social ranks. In the 1970s, research at daycare centers showed how young children form social hierarchies as early as 18 months old. New research from Harvard and University of California, Irvine demonstrates how toddlers specifically favor “winners” that are dominant yet win fairly.

In one study, toddlers were shown two scenarios in which two puppets crossed a stage to opposite sides and bumped into each other mid-way. In the first scenario, when both puppets bump into each other, one puppet yields and allows the other puppet to pass to reach its goal on the opposite side of the stage. In the second scenario, when both puppets bump into each other, one puppet pushes the other one out of the way and continues moving to the other side of the stage. Toddlers tended to favor the puppet that “won” the scenario when the other puppet gave way. The toddlers did not prefer the puppet that “won” by using force to push the other puppet out of the way.

The research described above provides evidence on how most individuals, toddlers and adults alike do not favor bullies or people who put others down in order to achieve success. One scientist hypothesized that as we created communities and adapted to living with other humans thousands of years ago, the way we socially interact may have become wired in us. Who knew that toddlers could be just like adults!