It's a headline-grabbing new study: Your baby is mean. And with bullying a steady part of national conversation, the implications can seem huge.
Should you be worried?
The University of British Columbia-led experiment included a group of more than 100 babies aged nine to 14 months who were allowed to choose a snack of either graham crackers or green beans. Children then watched a puppet show where bunny puppets demonstrated a food preferences—one bunny mimed eating graham crackers and turning up its nose at green beans, and vice versa. The show stopped for a minute and children were offered one of the bunnies to hold. Almost all went for the bunny who liked the same snack they did.
Next, two dog puppets arrived on the scene to play ball with the bunnies. One dog puppet played nicely with the bunny who shared the child's food preference, passing the ball back and forth. The other dog, however, took the ball from the bunny who liked the opposite food and refused to give it back—a "harming" behavior, according to psychologists.
Where does the mean-streak come in? When children were given a choice of holding one of the dog puppets after the show, almost all wanted to hold the one who had harmed the bunny who preferred the other kind of food. One baby even planted a kiss on the puppet she liked.
Researchers say their experiment shows that lurking behind those angelic little faces appears to be natural instincts towards bias and apprehension when dealing with those viewed as different. Not only did children reject the bunny that didn't share their same food tastes, but they chose the dog puppet that teased and bullied the "different" bunny. It seems to show that even in the minds of young children, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," explains study author and University of British Columbia psychological scientist, Kiley Hamlin.
However, before any parent starts thinking their child is on the fast track to starring in a sequel of Mean Girls, let's get some perspective. If this experiment is true and the seeds of cliquish "you're different, therefore you are bad and deserve to be punished" behavior is present from birth, it's also important to recognize that natural instincts towards kindness, love, and empathy are there, too.
Need proof? According to the New York Times article, "The Moral Compass of Babies," one study from a few years back showed that babies cry more when listening to recorded cries of other babies than sound recordings of their own crying, "suggesting that they are responding to their awareness of someone else's pain, not merely to a certain pitch of sound." In another study, 1-year-olds demonstrated physical empathy by "soothing other babies in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy." And in yet one more, "toddlers [put] in situations in which an adult is struggling to get something done, like opening a cabinet door with his hands full or trying to get to an object out of reach, tend to spontaneously help the adult."
This all makes sense, too, doesn't it? If negative instincts are present at birth, so are positive ones. And it also makes sense that how these natural tendencies get shaped, whether they're encouraged or discouraged, is what parenting a child is all about. In the puppet show, for example, what if after watching the bunny reject the child's snack choice, the parent had been able to explain to the child that not everyone has to like the same things? Or if a parent were allowed to point out that playing keep away with the ball was unkind—would babies still have been attracted to the badly behaving puppet?
In other words, "mean babies" may exist, but nice parents make a difference.