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What is Fair? How Young Children See Justice

Well hello and welcome to “This Week in Parenting Research”, a biweekly look at new and/or interesting research that might be of interest to parents. This week I wanted to focus on a study from Developmental Psychology called “Children’s Reasoning About Distributive and Retributive Justice Across Development” by researchers from the University of Michigan.

Anyone who spends time around kids knows that cognitive, moral and emotional development are not always a straight line.  While life experience certainly adds to our knowledge, kids go through developmental stages where they may or may not process the world the same way adults do. For any parent or person who works with or cares for children, understanding these differences in perception can be very helpful in knowing how our words or actions may be received.

When it comes to topics like justice or fairness, these differences can get really interesting. One look at our current political debates will quickly show you that many adults don’t even agree on definitions of those terms, so how are we to know what children are thinking? That’s what the researchers here wanted to find out.

First, some definitions: The researchers here were interested in two different views on fairness and justice: distributive and retributive. Distributive justice is fairness in who gets what. A child insistent on equal snack portions is focused on distributive justice. Retributive justice is fairness of punishments or consequences. The classic “but mom that’s not faaaaaaaaaaaaaaair” is almost always said with a focus on retributive justice.

In both cases kids can either show a preference for equality (equal distribution of goods or punishments) or equity (proportional distribution of goods or punishments according to need or actions). The researchers hypothesized two possibilities:

  1. Young children would be more concerned with equal distribution in both types of justice, with proportional fairness concerns developing as they got older OR
  2. Young children would distribute goods equally, but would distribute punishment based on how deserved it was

So what did they do?

Previous literature suggests that ages 4 to 6 show shifts in moral development, so the researchers recruited 123 children age 4 to 10.  Kids were brought to a lab set up at Boston Museum of Science or Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. There they were shown fictional class room with “fun jobs” (feeding a hamster, testing computer games, delivering mail) or “yucky jobs” (cleaning up paint or juice spills, emptying garbage cans), and told they could assign them to fictional students in various scenarios. In the “allocation phase” each child had 4 jobs to give to two students, so they could show equal treatment (2 for each), some judgment (a 1 to 3 split) or total judgment (0 for one, 4 for the other).

Children were given scenarios and then asked how they would allocate jobs to the students in those scenarios. The scenarios were varied by fictional student behavior (they had behaved the same or differently), the type of behavior they had showed (good or bad), and the type of job the child was handing out (fun or yucky).

Additionally there was a “judgment phase” where children were given scenarios where a teacher had punished or rewarded children and asked if it was a fair reward or punishment.

For contrast, adults were tested through Mechanical Turk using similar scenarios.

What did they find?

For they allocation phase, they found that when behaviors were equal most people of all ages wanted to distribute fun jobs and yucky jobs evenly. Younger children were slightly more variable than adults, but for all ages at least 88% or more wanted an even distribution.

When unequal behavior was present however, this changed:


Children aged 4-5 were more likely than other ages to keep an even split regardless of behavior. As age increased, the tendency to reward good behavior or punish bad behavior increased.

For the judgment phase, this pattern held up. 4 to 5 year olds did not find targeted rewards or targeted punishments very fair, whereas adults found those the most fair.


For rewards, the youngest children found collective rewards very fair but were less thrilled about collective punishments. Interestingly, 8-10 year olds actually found collective rewards or punishments even less fair than adults did. Adults actually were quite similar to 6-7 year olds on that score.

They actually had a great table of the types of reasoning kids gave for their answers as well, that breaks down further where the shifts occur.


Overall, it’s really interesting to see exactly how kids react to scenarios differently from adults. While obviously not every child reacted the same way to each scenario, the clear trends can help remind us that young children often don’t perceive things as adults do. The differences between older children and adults are also interesting, suggesting that moral development and perception headed in to the teen years may also be different. Being aware of where differences exist can help parents and teachers be aware of possible conflicts.  For example, it would not have occurred to me that singling out good behavior for reward could be considered unfair by so many children. While obviously watching your own child’s reaction is important, knowing where to look for differences can be helpful overall and help make sure we get our messages across appropriately.


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Bethany is a perpetual student who just won't stop taking classes. She's gone from engineering to psych and family systems to applied statistics, and is really fascinated by how people feel about numbers. She blogs about this over at Graph Paper Diaries, and experimenting with contingency tables at Two Ways to Be Wrong.

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