Aug 19, 2010

Kiddie Morality

How do we develop our sense of morality? Even toddlers know there is a right and wrong beyond the rules in a classroom. While Jad attends playgroup, Robert concludes that children are sociopaths. Dr. Judi Smetana refutes this claim while guiding us through her research on the development of moral and social knowledge. And then, more fighting. We'll witness, through a mother's eyes, a pre-school brawl that results in blood and one boy's burgeoning sense of empathy.

Telling another tale of classroom chaos, reporter Amy O'Leary takes us along on a trip to right a wrong. She'll confront her fourth grade teacher and drudge up former classmates to put to rest the legacy of the "Homestead" game. In the process, she'll peel back layers to reveal the dark side of formative experiences that shape an individual's morality.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

[background music]

Voice Over: Listener supported WNYC Studios.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: Today, in our program, the science of morality of right and wrong and good and bad.

Robert: If we have now at least an argument in our heads about where moral sense might lie in a brain, now let's ask, when does it get turned on? When do you think that humans begin to get a sense of right or wrong?

Jad: I actually asked that question to an expert.

Judith Smetana: My name is Judy Smetana.

Jad: Judith Smetana is her name.

Judith: I'm a professor at the University of Rochester. Kids clearly know more than they can say. It's clear from both observations and anecdotes that children really are beginning to develop a moral sense in the second year of life. Of course, that experience increases as they move into the threes, but they're also beginning to form a much more complex or developed understanding of moral rules, which they can share with us a little bit in our interviews.

[background music]

Interviewer: Who makes the rules at your school?

Child: My teacher.

Jad: When you do the interviews with kids directly, what kind of questions are you asking them?

Interviewer: Can they change the rules if they want to?

Child: They're the teachers, they can do whatever they want.

Judith: We try to ask them really some very complex ideas in a simple form.

Interviewer: Is there a rule about hitting at your school?

Child: Yes.

Judith: Such as, would it be okay to hit if your teacher didn't see you or would it be okay to hit if there was no rule about it in your school?

Interviewer: Suppose the teachers at school agree that they won't have any rule about hitting at school, there was no rule anymore. Then, would it be okay for a boy to hit another kid hard?

Child: No.

Interviewer: No? How come?

Child: Because that would make somebody feel bad.

Interviewer: It would. What's wrong with hitting somebody anyway?

Child: Because it's made out of the skin. Because the skin can get cut or can get--

Judith: What we found is that young children beginning at about three, but really much more reliably by age four, will say that things like hitting or hurting or teasing would be wrong even if the teacher didn't see them or didn't have a rule, whereas other things like sitting in the circle at circle time-

Interviewer: Is there a rule at your school about sitting down while you eat lunch?

Child: Yes.

Judith: - would be okay if there was no rule about it.

Interviewer: Is that a rule the teacher could change?

Child: Yes. If she says, "You could stand up," you could do that. You have to listen to the teacher.

Judith: It's clear that the moral universe begins very early for young children.

[background music]

Speaker 3: Hey, who's hosting today? I got this idea to start a playgroup and all of our kids are out in the living room playing together as they usually do, trying not to kill each other. I'm finding the three's a little bit easier-

Dana: I'm Dana.

Speaker 3: - than the twos because my son [background noise] has no fear. We call him the [unintelligible 00:03:34] tornado.

Dana: Hey there, what's your name?

Alex: Alex.

Dana: Once he turned three-

Dana: How old are you?

Alex: Three.

Speaker 3: - I find that we're able to explain things to him easier.

Jad: What kind of things, like rules?

Speaker 3: Rules. Yes, rules.

Dana: Can you tell me what the rules are? You're nodding yes.

Speaker 3: If you ask him the rules of the house, he says, no hitting, no pushing, no banging heads.

Alex: No hitting, no pushing. No banging heads.

Speaker 3: Those are the rules. He knows.

Dana: No pushing, no hitting, and what's the other one?

Alex: No banging heads.

Dana: No banging heads.

Speaker 3: Doesn't always follow them though. Alex, do gentle.

Judith: One of the things that we see is that young children can tell you that things are wrong, that it's wrong to hit because it hurts. It's wrong to take toys. At the same time, kids do take other kids' toys, they do hit each other, and have to wonder why is it if they know it's wrong, why are they doing this?

Jad: Because it feels good, right?

Judith: Yes, it feels good because they got what they wanted.

[background noise]

Some researchers have called that the happy victimizer effect.

Jad: To hit another kid or to take another kid's toys feels good, but to have your toys taken by another kid feels bad. Is that the basic information that a child uses to start forming their moral universe?

Judith: Right. The task of a young child's development is to be able to coordinate those two perspectives, that of the victim and that of the transgressor, and weigh it toward the way the victim feels.

Jad: What we're really talking about is like a happy victimizer versus empathy.

Judith: Yes.

[background music]

Gabby: Hello.

William Brangham: I could say that the absence of empathy is one of the characteristics of really young kids.

Gabby: What's this?

Robert: It's a microphone.

Gabby: My name is Gabby.

William: Gabby, make sure you don't have any yogurt on your fingers.

Gabby: I ate two yogurts.

William: You say to them, "Do you see how you don't like being teased, but then you teased your brother and see how it made him feel?" You might as well be speaking in Farsi to them. They're a little bit like sociopaths.

Tory Brangham: [laughs]

Jad: Do you think that's overstating it?

Tory: I think so. I guess in a very general way, that's true. I think we were born with some very rudimentary sense of empathy hardwired in. People are very persuaded, for instance, by the primate evidence that that's something that you see in other species, but I do think that kids are born with different innate levels of empathy. I happened to be going to school early one day. I'm never early and they have an observation closet where you can watch the classroom and I had not ever observed [chuckles] because I'm never early.

I went into the closet. At that moment, I saw Jack tackle his best friend, dropped behind a bookcase. The rest of the classroom gathered around. Then I saw Jack stand up and just look down with this very startled, frightened, look on his face. Then I saw his friend stand up with his lip bleeding. I thought I can't believe I'm watching this happen. The only time I've ever watched my son [chuckles] in a window at school and I think he just gave someone a bloody lip.

He was mortified by the whole thing. He was mortified, I think scared about his own actions. In some ways, I said to my sister at that moment, I regretted that I didn't run in the classroom. My sister said the best thing you did was stay out of it.

Gabby: Jack, and then fall.

Tory: Jack had to see the consequences of his own actions on his own terms.

Jack: Seeds in the dirt, grow, grow, grow

Seeds in the dirt, grow, grow, grow

Seeds in the dirt, grow, grow, grow

Help me with my garden.

Sun in the sky, shine, shine, shine

Sun in the sky, shine shine, shine

Sun in the sky, shine shine, shine

Help me with my garden.

Robert: I love that song.

Jad: I love that song too. Thank you, Jack, and also Jack's parents, William and Tory Brangham. Thanks also to Dana, Missy, Elena, and Fe for letting us eavesdrop on their playgroup. Thanks also to our experts, Judith Smetana, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, and to Larry Nucci, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

[background music]

Robert: If this moral sense gets turned on when you're three or four, there are some moments in your life where you get so embarrassed by something that you did, that your moral sense never turns off. That's the next topic.

Jad: It comes from producer Amy O'Leary. For her, that moment came in the fourth grade, during a game her class played called Homestead, sort of a cross between dungeons and dragons and monopolies. It was supposed to teach kids about pioneer history. Amy felt so bad about how she acted in this game that many years later she wrote her teacher a letter, and he never responded. She went to see him.

Amy O'Leary: Where is your classroom?

Mr. Riggs: Down this way.

Amy: The kids are often-- [chuckles]

[background conversation]

As we walked through the hallway, I realized why I'm feeling so disoriented. I'm a grownup with a 401(k) and the doorknobs in this school come up to my knees. When we sit down for the interview part of the interview, where I'm supposed to ask Mr. Riggs about this game we played, frankly, all I could think of was the most obvious question. How are you?

Mr. Riggs: Older, balder, grayer, fatter, [chuckles] still teaching, probably have still six or seven years left to go.

Amy: How many have you--

Mr. Riggs: 34.

Amy: 34 years?

Mr. Riggs: Yes. I've been teaching probably longer than half the staff's been alive.

Amy: You still play Homestead?

Mr. Riggs: Yes. We're still trying to do it.

Amy: You just grabbed your forehead and had this look of anguish. What was that for?

Mr. Riggs: [chuckles] This class. This has been a difficult class. Some of them will do it, some of them won't, some of them will remember it. You remembered it. Did everyone in the class remember it?

Amy: I already knew the answer to that.

[phone rings]

Amy: Because I checked.

Jeff: Hello?

Amy: I phoned Jeff in LA. Jeff, do you remember Homestead?

Jeff: Vaguely.

Amy: Dale in Phoenix, Dale, do you remember the Homestead game that we played?

Dale: Vaguely.

Amy: Steffa, who I met at a bar in Brooklyn where she works, Do you remember Homestead, the game?`

Steffa: No, not as much as you do, obviously. [laughs]

Amy: Yes, I think I still remember it.

Steffa: Once you start talking about it, I may remember it.

Amy: It was this simulation game that we were supposed to be like prairie settlers, right? There's this big plywood map at the front of the classroom. It had these little booklets or sort of black and white booklets.

Mr. Riggs: These are the booklets you used.

Amy: Wow. Standing in this classroom, I remember everything about the game. I hold this and I have a flood of memories. [laughs] I remember the power and the [unintelligible 00:11:04], the [unintelligible 00:11:06] gouging.

[background music]

Amy: I think the purpose of the game was to teach us something about the history of the kinds of people who had to settle the West. You were assigned a character and a plot of land. Every day you played it, each individual student would have a different fortune. You might roll a one and there'd be a drought and you wouldn't get any money off of your land, or you'd roll a six and that meant there is a bumper crop. It was a lot like a Monopoly game.

Mr. Riggs: With that in mind, I've got the board there.

Amy: Is that the same board?

Mr. Riggs: Yes, it's the same board.

Amy: Look at it. I remember this. Just as luck would have it, one of the very first things that happened in the game is that Mr. Riggs announced that this land, the square in the middle there, land square 18, my land, that's the piece of land that I had would be the center of town.

Mr. Riggs: You got to sell a little bit of town property and everything and run the town.

[background music]

Jad: What did you think of this?

Amy: I knew at the time it would help me win the game. I thought, "This is lucky. I have something that nobody else has." I thought it was further evidence that I was special.

Jad: [chuckles]

Amy: I was always a good student and I thought like, "This is why good students, you get rewarded with lucky things."

Jad: Then what did you do?

Amy: I started by forming a company. We'd go to a kid, we'd say, "Hey, do you want to join our company?" They'd be like, "What's that?" We say, "We're going to be a company and we're going to be all together. You give us your land and we'll give you a place in the town to live in. Everybody wants to move to the town. Don't you want to be in the town?"

[background music]

Amy: Meanwhile, I'll take all the profits from your farmland. You could get $200 to $1,000 a year on your crops on your land. Then, we would pay them $50 a year. It was a simulation game so nobody actually had to go out and work their fields to reap the profits off the land, but these people basically sold themselves into a very low wage kind of slavery situation.

Jad: All the other nine-year-olds went for this?

Amy: Yes.

Jad: Why?

Amy: Peer pressure. They thought we were the cool kids. They would all say yes, that's what I remember. Almost no one turned us down. Once you've got 20 kids who were part of the company, "Oh my God. I can do whatever I want." Crazy total power. [chuckles] Anything. Any bullying tactic. There were things that would come up with like the booklet would say, "Your family's having a medical problem. You need to pay the doctor."

"My baby's sick. My baby's sick." The doctor worked for our company and the doctor would overcharge the people who were not in the company. If you were not part of the company, it was going to cost you a lot of money. More money than any of these people of had.

Jad: Jeesh.

Amy: That wasn't even the worst of it.

Dale: I do somewhat remember that whole episode of-

Amy: That's Dale again.

Dale: -us having to actually stop the game early.

Amy: He didn't remember much but he remembered the money. It's hard to forget the money.

Dale: You had flooded the whole game with counterfeit money. Everybody else's wasn't worth anything anymore.

Amy: The game used Monopoly money to begin with. Once we got big enough, and we realized nobody could really track our finances, we just started bringing it in from home. We actually brought in Life money and Monopoly money from home and flooded the classroom currency market. It was an absurd amount of money. In hindsight, I thought that you had to notice that.

Mr. Riggs: It was kind of noticeable [chuckles] because I was stamping the money with a Groucho Marx stamp I had on the back. That was the real stuff and anything without the Groucho was the counterfeit. No class has taken it as far as you guys did.

Dale: Did Mr. Riggs ever tell you this was wrong?

Amy: No, never. He never said it explicitly. He just one day he called this meeting. I remember this meeting very clearly. You brought us all up to the front of the room and six kids frustrated, gathered around one side of Mr. Ricks, big teacher's desk. I stood on the other and you said, "We don't exactly think this is fair, but you didn't tell us it was wrong or that you're cheating or you're counterfeiting money and I know it." What I remember was that you raised the question. He asked me, "What are you going to do about this?"

A long pause. He wasn't punishing me or saying it was against the rules exactly. I couldn't figure out what was going on. We were winning. What was I going to do about it? "Nothing," I told him. That's when he gave me this look. It was almost like there was a quiet disappointment that you'd had. All the hope he'd had for me as a human being just slid right off his face.

Mr. Riggs: Did that help develop a conscience in you? Has that ever come back so that you think about things differently?

Amy: Utterly, that's exactly why I've remembered this for so long and so well. It stuck with me as this lesson of, even if you're not going to get punished for something, it's still can be wrong.

Mr. Riggs: Because then it was successful if that has happened.

Amy: Do you do that on purpose?

Mr. Riggs: I think I did it on purpose then because it was one of those teachable moments that happens and you just revel in it. How wonderful it is that this was presented. [chuckles]

Amy: My classmate, Dale, put things into perspective.

Dale: Everybody does things when they're that age that make you feel bad to learn what's right or wrong.

Amy: Do you have things like that? What he told me next caught me off guard.

Dale: Yes. Travis Sherman was a friend of mine that lived in the neighborhood and we were the best of friends, riding our bikes around town. We were coming home crossing a freeway off-ramp and I was in front of Travis. I made it across and the next thing I remember hearing is just squealing tires. I look around and Travis's half underneath this car out in the intersection. I remember him half standing up and his leg was folded up, like origami, almost, just trashed. He just looked up at me and said, "God, Dale, my leg," and he fell back down. I couldn't have been more than six, but for whatever reason, I didn't go back to him.

I just turned around and I got on my bike and I just rode off. I don't even think I told my mom about it. He tried calling from the hospital several times and I just remember going, "No, I don't want to talk to him." "I don't want to talk to him." My mom finally says, "No, you're going to talk to him, whether you like it or not." When I finally did get on the phone, I just clearly remember him asking me, "Why did you do that?" Why didn't come back for me?" I didn't have an answer for him.

To this day, it's one of those things that still bugs me about myself. Even though I was only that old, that still bothers me that I would do that, that I would turn around and leave somebody who needs help like that. Maybe that factors into how I am as a person today. I'll say I'll help anybody I can just because I don't want to have that feeling again.

Amy: I asked Dale if he could erase that day from his life, would he? "No," he said, "Not in a million years." Its part of who he is now and who he is now is the guy who will come and pick you up in the middle of the desert when your car breaks down at 3:00 AM, no questions asked. He's a really loyal friend, a good person.

[background music]

I didn't go back to see Mr. Riggs to resolve anything. I didn't need him to say that deep down he always thought I was a good kid or that he's no longer disappointed in me. What matters is that once he was disappointed in me and I think about that all the time.

Do you find that with kids this age that, that particular lesson is one that they're sorting through right now, the kids who are eight, nine years old?

Mr. Riggs: Yes, there's sorting through that. Is there a right? Is there a wrong? What is morality? Is this a sense of fairness? These kids have got fairness down to the nth degree. They can look at one of these cupcakes and tell you to the ounce, which one's bigger. If somebody else gets it, it's not fair and everything else. Is that morality? I think if people are left alone, that they have a tendency to do the right thing. kids have the tendency to do the right thing. There are several kids that I don't think will ever have a grasp of that. Whether it's genetics or very early family background.

Amy: How can you tell that so early?

Mr. Riggs: When you see a child that consistently pokes, consistently cuts, cheats, steals, lies, whatever, and I'm saying at three, at four, at five, not just in third grade, I think that child's cursed, doomed, whatever, for the rest of their lives.

Amy: I spend the rest of the day with Mr. Rigg's class, thinking about what he said, watching his third graders. I ask Ethan a kid in the front row what the rules are. Could you tell me what the rules are in this room?

Ethan: You got three of them right up there.

Amy: He points to a poster and I remember that too.

Ethan: Act safely, respect others, and their property.

Amy: At the top, rule number one.

Ethan: Do what you know is right.

Amy: Do what you know is right. The rules work pretty well?

Ethan: Yes, they actually sometimes do.

Jad: Thanks Amy O'Leary for producing that story. One more story like it coming up on Radiolab, stay with us.

[background music]

Speaker 4 You're listening to Radiolab from New York public radio.

Speaker 5: WNYC.

Speaker 4 And NPR.

[music]

Annie McEwen: Hi, my name is Annie McEwen. I'm a producer at Radiolab, and I wanted to talk about this thing we do at Radiolab because I like it. We have this thing, it's a newsletter. Big surprise, every show has a newsletter, but ours I think is pretty fun.

Matt Kielty: It's so fun.

Annie: Matt Kielty.

Matt: Hello.

Annie: Fellow producer at Radiolab. What is your favorite part of the newsletter?

Matt: My favorite part of the newsletter is, first, it's getting it and seeing it in my inbox. Then second, it's opening it. Then third, is just hitting page down on my keyboard till I get to the very bottom of the email.

Annie: That's good.

Matt: Because you know what's at the bottom of the email?

Annie: What?

Matt: You know.

Annie: Staff picks.

Matt: Staff picks at the bottom of the email which is how great is that?

Annie: It's great.

Matt: It's just stuff that we like, stuff we're into.

Annie: What are your favorites?

Matt: Some of your staff picks. There was the one video where it was 17 babies on a hamster wheel. The article about the guy who ate 17 burritos?

Annie: Matt. You're not saying real ones.

Matt: What's your favorite staff pick?

Annie: My favorite one ever?

Matt: Yes.

Annie: It's hard to say. One of my favorite ones ever was Robert talking in delightful detail about the great sausage duel of 1865.

Matt: Classic pick.

Annie: Classic. Molly's bedbug pajamas.

Matt: Yes, that was a scary time.

Annie: Tracy's pasta recipe, which I did not make because I don't really cook, but I'm just proud of her.

Matt: Actually, it's really simple.

Annie: This is online. It's a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, five tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, and onion, and you cook it in a pan for 45 minutes. All right.

Matt: Thank you, Tracy. I'm telling you everybody's loving this pasta dish.

Annie: All right. Do, definitely.

Matt: That woman, this guy.

Speaker 6: I think it's wonderful. Very tasty.

Speaker 7: Pasta every day.

Annie: Matt.

Matt: [laughs]

Annie: You're not helping. Anyway, a newsletter has like cool stuff in it like staff picks. It also tells you when an episode is dropping.

Matt: It's free.

Annie: It's free.

Matt: We're just here to just say you should sign up.

Annie: Sign up. You can sign up in about 3 seconds at radiolab.org/newsletter or text RL news as in Radiolab news to 70101, that's RL news to 70101. Thank you.

 

Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.