Remember when we thought children were “blank slates”?

That myth went out the window right after we had our own and noticed a certain stubbornness/sweetness/charm/intellect/manipulative streak that somehow fit into that tiny little body.

(Daniel Mears/AP)

A new study reveals that children as young as five make strategic decisions about generosity. In public, the young subjects were gracious. But if they thought their actions were private, the kids were much more selfish.

In the study, Yale researchers gave five-year-olds stickers and the option of sharing with another five-year-old.

“The biggest revelation was just how strategic children were in deciding when to be generous,” said Kristin Lyn Leimgruber, an author of the report, which was just published in the journal Plos One.

“Overall, children were only generous when their classmate could see them and was totally aware of their opportunity to be generous. In all other situations, children were systematically stingy — even when it meant looking their friends in the eyes and giving them only one sticker when they knew they could get away with it.”

Does this mean we’re hard-wired to be greedy?

“At the end of the day, these studies can’t lead us to conclude that people are inherently selfish, but they do suggest that — even at five years of age — we are incredibly adept at navigating our social worlds in pretty sophisticated ways,” Leimgruber said.

I asked her if the results offer any guidance for parents as we try to raise children who are, if not naturally, outwardly generous.

“The good news is, there is a lot of research out there that strongly suggests we find doing nice things for others to be inherently rewarding, so it’s likely that your child will reap benefits from any sort of charitable action in which you involve them,” she said.

“That said, activities in which they can directly interact with the beneficiary of their kindness (i.e. helping in a soup kitchen or being a buddy to a participant in the Special Olympics) in a very tangible and visible way may be extra rewarding for children. As our results suggest, the only thing better than doing something nice for others is the feeling of everyone knowing you were generous in the first place.”

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