Young kids think punishing the whole class is much more fair

We know that rewarding or punishing a whole class for a good deed or misdeed is not the way to go, but a new study shows that the opinion of children on the topic differs with age.

From the press release:

A new study lends insight into how children react to discipline practices used by parents and teachers, and sheds light on their view of what’s fair.

“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,” said research investigator Craig Smith of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development. “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 data found that preschool-age children were more apt to punish groups of people for the transgressions of one person in the group. It doesn’t mean the little ones are necessarily harsher as people, but that they have a different idea of what’s fair, Smith said.

They may actually be 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.

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.

In the elementary school years, this shifts 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. This is the view that most adults take, Smith said.

Abstract of the study:

Research on distributive justice indicates that preschool-age children take issues of equity and merit into account when distributing desirable items, but that they often prefer to see desirable items allocated equally in third-party tasks. By contrast, less is known about the development of retributive justice. In a study with 4- to 10-year-old children (n = 123) and adults (n = 93), we directly compared the development of reasoning about distributive and retributive justice. We measured the amount of rewards or punishments that participants allocated to recipients who differed in the amount of good or bad things they had done. We also measured judgments about collective rewards and punishments. We found that the developmental trajectory of thinking about retributive justice parallels that of distributive justice. The 4- to 5-year-olds were the most likely to prefer equal distributions of both rewarding and aversive consequences; older children and adults preferred deservingness-based allocations. The 4- to 5-year-olds were also most likely to judge collective rewards and punishments as fair; this tendency declined with increasing age. Our results also highlight the extent to which the notion of desert influences thinking about distributive and retributive justice; desert was considered equally when participants allocated reward and punishments, but in judgments about collective discipline, participants focused more on desert in cases of punishment compared with reward. We discuss our results in relation to theories about preferences for equality versus equity, theories about how desert is differentially weighed across distributive and retributive justice, and the literature on moral development and fairness.

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