The discussion that followed in the comments was marvelous and interesting.
I don’t think many people were able to see the video, though, on account of it being rather long and only available in Canada. So most people responded with their own thoughts, based on their readings of Scripture and other religious texts. It had almost nothing to do with the documentary.
Well guess what? I came across a different video that talks about many of the same studies. It’s much shorter – only 13 minutes – and available in any country. Watch it, watch it! (The show is called 60 Minutes, which is confusing, because it is actually only 13 minutes. Oh, television. Also, I wasn’t able to embed it, so you’ll have to click over to watch it.)
So I wanted talk about the documentary a bit and offer my reflections; and then, in another post, think about about how it relates to what Scripture says about children and morality, since that was the big topic in the last discussion.
Babies: Born to be Good? The Studies
Both videos explored numerous recent psychology experiments conducted all over the world regarding the development of morality in babies and children. The results were fascinating: infants as young as three months old showed signs of a moral impulse.
In the most intriguing (to me) experiment, the researcher puts on a short puppet show for the baby. In the show, the baby sees three puppets interacting – a penguin, a “mean” otter who takes away the penguin’s ball, and a “nice” otter who shares.
(A variation of the same experiment is featured in both videos.)
After the performance, the researcher offers the baby a choice between the two otters.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the baby reaches for (or looks at, in the case of the three-month-old) the “nice” otter. In short, he shows an immediate preference for the “good guy,” before he can really have learned about good and evil from his parents.
This was true of every age group they tested, from three to nine months.
Other experiments revealed that young children also have instincts to be helpful and to share. Without being prompted, toddlers will help an adult (a stranger) get something he can’t reach. Very young children will offer to share all of their toys with a teddy bear who has no toys, even though another teddy bear clearly has plenty to spare.
These experiments – and others — show that young humans have a natural impulse to be cooperative. We have inborn tendencies to be empathetic. We instinctively seek justice and fairness.
These tendencies aren’t learned: they are instinctive.
All of these experiments cast doubt upon the widely-held – and widely-taught – belief among many evangelical Christians (and others) that children are naturally inclined to rebellion, chaos, and selfishness.
Of course, the documentary didn’t only offer evidence that children are inclined to good. For example, it also showed some interesting experiments that demonstrated our natural preference for people like ourselves.
In other words, it showed us that we have instinctive tendencies towards prejudice and racism.
And it doesn’t take too long before a child is capable of lying (between 2 and 3 years old, typically). A child’s first lies, it turns out, are generally told in order to get out of trouble.
But I was overwhelmed by the evidence that children are, by nature, given to cooperation, kindness, and empathy.
The seeds of goodness are within us at birth.
This excites and interests me for a number of reasons.
These findings resonate with what I already intuitively believed: that babies have an inborn wisdom that we would do well to heed.
If this is true, it must influence the way we respond to children.
For example: when they tell us they need something – food, cuddles, company – they’re telling the truth. They aren’t being manipulative: they aren’t even capable of dishonesty until well after their second birthday. They know something we don’t about how they feel and what they need. We ought to respect them when they claim to need something.
When they refuse to listen or obey, maybe our demands really are unreasonable. (Maybe not; but it’s worth considering.) It’s important to listen.
And in all things, babies and children deserve respect. They deserve to be listened to. They understand more than we realize. They’re learning about compassion and cooperation right from the start, and internalizing the way we treat them and each other. We need to show them how humans treat each other respectfully by demonstrating it right from birth.
Babies are not born perfect, and obviously need guidance and correction; but the seeds of goodness are already there. We just need to nurture them.
At the same time, of course, we need to help children overcome their natural tendency to prefer those who are like them and to fear or disdain people who are different. But there is already an impulse to prefer kindness, too.
* * *
However: does all of this contradict what we learn about human nature in the Bible?
In my next post, I would like to think about how these truths interact with the truth we find in Scripture.