Social Behavior

Even 3-Year-Olds Understand The Value Of Collaboration

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Never underestimate the emotional complexity of a 3-year-old. According to a May 2017 study, toddlers understand and value the meaning of collaboration and teamwork. So parents, feel free to encourage your kids to work together—they've got this.

Toddlers On Task

Previous studies revealed that toddlers begin collaborating as young as 2 or 3 years old. But researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Duke University wanted to go a step further. They wanted to answer the question: do toddlers actually understand the concept behind joint commitments? It turns out that yes, they do.

In the study, 144 3-year-olds were paired off into 72 boy-boy/girl-girl teams, then given a collaborative task where they had to pull a rope together in order to move a block towards a set of marbles, which earned them a reward. Here's the twist: one kid in every pair had been trained to stop cooperating, either by pretending they wanted to stop so they could to get the reward on their own, by pretending they didn't know how the game worked, or because the toy "accidentally" broke. 

Toddlers naturally become upset when a task is interrupted for any reason, but that's not the point. If a partner interrupted the task because of reasons outside their control (ignorance of the rules or the toy breaking), the toddlers became less upset, and they were more likely to help teach their partner. If they quit due to selfish reasons, however, that's when resentment set in. The children got more upset and were more likely to tattle on their partners when they believed they had intentionally skipped out on their half of the deal.

Teamwork Makes The Dream Work

Margarita Svetlova of Duke University explains the significance of this distinction in a news release: "This illustrates children's growing understanding of norms of cooperative co-existence and the obligations they entail." So, what does this mean? Parents and teachers should feel empowered to incorporate more group work activities into their three-year-olds' interactions. They can handle it.

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