"It's not fair!"

From the minute most kids learn how to talk, they adopt these three words as their childhood mantra. Toddlers complain about the unfairness of sharing toys with their brothers or sisters, the unfairness of having to eat vegetables, the unfairness of having to wear pants, and so on and so on. But as it turns out, kids are not just worried about fairness as it affects them, but also about doling out fairness for others. In fact, when an injustice occurs, whether it's to them or to someone else, toddlers care more about making amends for the wrongdoing then punishing the culprit.

A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, found that toddlers are surprisingly empathetic, caring just as much when they've been wronged as when someone else has been. That may surprise anyone who has ever watched a toddler playdate in action and witnessed the fighting over toys that frequently occurs. But when a toy is unjustly snatched out of the hands of one toddler, it's not unusual for the others to respond in protest.

Here's what happened during the study when toddlers between the ages of 3 and 5 years old watched a puppet show in which one of the puppets was a thief. In one scenario, the thieving puppet stole a toy or a cookie from either another puppet or a child and kept it. In another, the thief stole the prize and gave it to someone else. Researchers found that the kids were just as upset when the toy or cookie was stolen from them as they were when it was stolen from one of the puppets. And when they were given the opportunity to remedy the situation, they chose only to return the item to the victim rather than to punish the thief. 

The study suggests that from a young age, toddlers have a refined sense of restorative justice — or the desire to right a wrong — as opposed to retributive justice, which focuses on punishing wrongdoers. The fundamental basis for their actions was empathy with the victim.

“It appears that a sense of justice centered on harm caused to victims emerges early in childhood,” the researchers said in a news release.

So how does that translate to parenting? When talking to toddlers about issues involving right and wrong, it will mean more to kids at this age if you focus on the negative consequences of their actions rather than the potential punishment. 

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Pint-sized justice: Fair play is a big deal for little kids
New study finds that toddlers have a surprising capacity for empathy, and a strong desire to make things fair.