Yes, Your 5-Year-Old Understands Charity, Believe it or Not

At what age do children begin to understand and act on the concept of charity? A recent study tackled just this question.

If you’ve ever seen your kids squabble over who gets what, it’s hard to imagine that giving to others is something they value. Children are often aware of the concept of fairness and protests about fairness can occur when a child perceives they haven’t got as much as the other.
Giving to others as a charitable act is what psychologists term a pro-social behavior. But at what age do children begin to understand and act on the concept of charity? A recent study tackled just this question.
81 children from different backgrounds aged three to six living in a large European city took part in the study. The researchers used puppet play to engage the children in a story that involved sharing resources. Each puppet had a sticker album. It was easy to see just by looking at the albums who was the “poor” puppet and who was the “rich” puppet.
In the first part of the study, the researchers presented children with two stories. In each story one of two characters had to decide who to give more or fewer stickers and erasers to, either the rich or the poor puppet. Some children saw the poor puppet receiving the stickers and erasers first and the others the rich puppet first. Afterwards, the researchers asked the children a number of questions about their recall of who gave and received the stickers and erasers.
In the second part of the study, described as the punishment and reward phase, children could decide which one of the two characters they would give a delicious or bad tasting treats to. The experimenter put a bowl with four decorated cookies and four plain green cookies on the table. They then tried one cookie of each type and commented on its taste. The decorated cookie was praised as a very tasty cookie and the green cookie described as tasting like worms. Children then distributed the remaining three tasty cookies and three disgusting cookies between the two characters. Children could distribute any number of cookies they wanted and that they could also leave cookies in the bowl.
The children were also asked to judge the character’s previous distribution of the stickers and erasers. On a four-point smiley scale, ranging from very bad to very good, children were asked to explain their answer. Children were also asked whether the characters should have acted differently and, if so, what they should have done differently.
The researchers found that five- to six-year-old children understood charity, in this case that it was right to give more to a poor other than to a wealthy other. The younger children did not understand charity. The study’s results suggest that this shift in understanding takes place around children’s fifth birthday.
The study also found that the five- to six-year-olds rewarded the character who had been charitable by giving them more tasty cookies. Interestingly they did not punish the character that was not charitable by allocating more disgusting cookies than tasty cookies. The five- to six-year-old children also rated the behavior of the character who favored the poor recipient more positively than the behavior of the character who favored the rich recipient. The study notes that five- to six-year-old children were also more likely to use words like fair and unfair to describe what they thought of the character’s behavior.
Do you see charitable behavior in your children? Does it extend beyond concepts of fairness to actually giving? There is much more to learn about pro-social behaviors such as charity and I can’t wait to hear more.