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Prince Kropotkin's Ghost

Melanie Killen, Marina Cords

Natural Negotiators

As an example of children's social skills, consider the results of an investigation that one of us (Killen) conducted with Elliot Turiel of the University of California, Berkeley. For that study, we brought three 4-year-olds into a room to play, leaving them alone for 15 minutes while a video camera recorded their exchanges. Some of their conversation was illuminating:

Ruth: [Holding up two toy people] Hey, I want the green person. How about if we trade? Here, you can have this one. [Ruth gives a blue person to Michael.] And I can have the green one. Okay? [Ruth reaches for the green person that Michael is holding.]

Michael: [Holding on to the green person] No! We already did trade. I want this one. I want it now and you had it already.

Lily: Hey, you can both have my spoons, if you want. [Lily shows her spoons to Michael and Ruth.]

Ruth: No, I want the green person.

Michael: [Hovering over his toys] I'm not trading any of mine.

Lily: [Singing] I'm not trading any of mine.

Ruth: [Singing] I'm not trading any of mine.

Lily: Well, that's not fair because I don't have any people.

Michael: [To Ruth] Give her one of them.

Ruth: But you have three and she has none and I have one. So that's not fair.

Lily: Yeah, because I have none.

Ruth: [To Michael] You know what? If you give me the green and then I'll give her the red one and then we'll all have one.

Michael: Well, if you don't give me the red one then I won't invite you to my birthday party.

Lily: But I don't have any people.

Ruth: [To Lily] Okay, I'll give you this one, and I'll take this one from Michael and then we'll all have one, okay?

Michael: [Gives orange person to Ruth.] Okay, but can we trade again tomorrow?

Ruth: [Singing] Birthday party! [Ruth takes the orange person from Michael and gives the red person to Lily.]

Lily: [Singing] Birthday party!

Michael: [Singing] Birthday party!

This snippet reveals some of the complexities of young children's social and moral capacities, abilities that adults often underestimate. Lily, Ruth and Michael maintained the flow of interaction with collaborative suggestions ("Let's trade"), moral justifications ("That's not fair because?"), third-party intervention ("Hey, you can both have my spoons"), compromises (children got a different toy than the one originally requested), conventionalized rituals (singing), ownership claims ("You had it already"), threats ("I won't invite you to my birthday party") and bargaining ("I'll give you this one and I'll take this one?"). Although the children sometimes promoted their own interests, they also worked very hard to make things work out for the group.

Are Ruth, Lily and Michael anomalies? After examining more than 2,000 conversations between children at play with no adults present, we found that the most common phrases uttered were not commands or insistences. More often we heard expressions of collaboration, which we defined as an exchange in which one child offers a suggestion or negotiates with others.

Interestingly, when we observed the very same children playing with a teacher present, the amount of give and take decreased dramatically. Instead of negotiating their differences, the children appealed to the adult to intervene, threatened that the adult would intervene or just let the issue drop. Clearly young children have ways to avoid or resolve conflicts, but in most preschools they are rarely granted the opportunity to exercise these skills, perhaps because their teachers suppose that their charges, left alone, would tend to act on their aggressive animal instincts.

We believe that children are inherently more social than that. Of course, it's very difficult to disentangle children's basic natures from what adults have taught them. As many parents report, they have spent hours and hours helping their toddlers learn to share and take turns. Presumably, some of this training has influenced their developing social abilities. But is there any evidence that positive forms of social interaction are not strictly a product of adult instruction? One can't, after all, examine children who have been denied such tutoring. As it turns out, primatologists have provided a missing piece of the puzzle: Observations from the natural world suggest that there is, in fact, a biological basis for our social predispositions.

Just as children are frequently in conflict over the way they will play together, so too are the members of a typical nonhuman primate group. These animals have regular disagreements about what they will do with whom and when, or where their group will go next. And these primates, just like children, have various techniques for preventing or defusing the tensions that arise in their lives together.

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