If you find it hard to like James Inhofe—the Senator from Oklahoma who famously called climate change the “greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people”—remember this: he was once five. That matters, because Inhofe wasn’t merely a lot younger back then, he was a lot wiser—at least where the environment is concerned. That, according to a new study from the Teacher Training College in Bilbao Spain, is true not just of the gentleman from Oklahoma, but all of us.
Educators and other people who work with small children know that they’re anarchists by nature, but they’re anarchists who also know that they live in a world full of rules. Some of those rules are taught—raise your hand in class, don’t interrupt other people; some seem more innate—don’t hit other other children, don’t hurt animals. The innate rules must be repeated and enforced by adults too, but they have a stickiness to them that other rules don’t. As I reported in an earlier story, psychologists like to posit the difference between telling a kindergartener that the teacher has suspended the rule against eating snacks in class and telling the same child that the teacher has suspended the no-hitting rule. In the first case, the child will grab the nearest cookie. In the second, the child will typically hesitate and refuse to hit, and may even say the teacher is wrong.
To test where living things, particularly plants, fall on this do-no-harm spectrum, Training College researcher José Domingo Villaroel assembled a sample group of 118 boys and girls, ages 4 to 7, from local public schools. He started with the basics, showing the kids two sets of four pictures each—a dog, a tree a bird and a flower; and the sun, clouds, a car and a motorcycle—and asked which of them was alive and which not. That, as it turned out, was a trickier question than it would seem. The youngest kids particularly would often exclude the tree from the living things category but include the car or the motorcycle. Self-locomotion, it seemed, was the defining quality here.
Regardless of how the children did on this part of the study, Villaroel next asked them to respond to two scenarios. In the first they were presented with a set of social rules (the rule against nose-picking and the rule against eating sloppily) and a set of interpersonal rules (don’t take other kids’ toys and don’t hurt other kids). In the second they were presented the same social rules and a set of environmental rules (don’t step on flowers, don’t carve your name into a tree with a knife). In both cases they were asked to pick which rules were the worse ones to break. In both cases it was the social rules that were abandoned first.
It was, perhaps, unsurprising that kids understand in an intuitive way why harming other children is a worse offense than showing bad manners. Even at an early age, after all, children have a powerful and growing sense of empathy, and they understand what it would feel like to be hit themselves or have a toy taken away—even if they do not act on that awareness consistently. But children aren’t flowers or trees, and yet they showed them equal concern—and that included the kids who didn’t realize that plant life is life at all.
The study is hardly airtight. It’s certainly possible that the children did not give a hoot about the flowers and were just parroting rules they’d been taught or had observed. But they were taught the good-manners rule too. Villaroel wasn’t concerned with whether they understood right and wrong as absolutes, but rather in degrees—which thing was more right or more wrong. And on that metric, nature scored a big win.
There’s a whole lot of developmental ground covered between the time you’re a five year-old pre-schooler and a 55-year-old policymaker, and our better angels don’t always survive the trip. But it’s encouraging to know we start out with them—and it’s worth trying to hang onto them as long as we can.