Preschool justice may be more developed than previously thought. So finds new research published in the journal Current Biology, where 3- and 5-year-olds observed two of four different scenes involving puppets, toys, and cookies. It turns out that not only did the kids sort out pretty quickly whether the "master" puppet was being mean or nice, they wanted to return stolen items to their rightful owner regardless of whether it was taken from them or from a puppet. What's more, the tots were far more inclined to restore justice by returning an item to the victim than doling out punishment to the perpetrator, University of Manchester researchers report at Eureka Alert.
"The 3-year-olds didn't seem to want to punish; they wanted to help as much as they could," one study co-author tells Live Science. "If the only thing they could do was punish the thief, they would just cry." Previous research has found that babies as young as 8 months can identify and even want to punish wrongdoers, and toddlers as young as 19 months can tell what others are thinking. But this research suggests an early aptitude for empathy, and that at least when it comes to justice, kids don't necessarily distinguish between themselves and others. It also suggests a preference for restorative justice, where repairing harm done is more important than retributive justice, which focuses on punishing the wrongdoer. (Here is one thing experts say young toddlers should never have.)