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'One of the first experiments we tried in this programme was to see if our children could distinguish between actions such as stealing sweets or not saying thank you, leaving their room untidy or k...icking their family pet. Most of our children knew immediately that kicking or stealing are 'worse' or 'more naughty' than talking in class or leaving your room untidy. Scientists call this the ability to distinguish between what is morally wrong from what is merely a social convention. They think it can start as young as three or four years old. -- We used puppets to represent the different kinds of action but at the University of East London, Dr Chris Pawson and his team have been developing a sophisticated version of this test using a robot game. One very practical use of their test in future might be to detect children who are in danger of growing up with behavioural or personality disorders. -- Our children are being brought up with a widely different set of values, often reflecting the varied religious and spiritual beliefs of their parents. One of our children describes himself as a Buddhist, another a Hindu, another an atheist. Most of the other children would say they're Christian - but their understanding of Christianity and God is already very diverse, reflecting a sense of Britain as a nation with a very complex set of spiritual beliefs which can't be categorised easily anymore. -- But irrespective of their beliefs, how good would our children be at lying? Developing the ability to lie shows that they understand right and wrong and it's also a good measure of how much children understand other minds. Developing the ability to lie and not be caught is also a good indication that a child is learning the social skills necessary to survive. And finally the ability to tell a lie to help others shows the development in a child of empathy and altruism. -- At four years old, most children know the difference between telling the truth and lying and know that it's wrong to lie. Generally, they're truthful, and, when they're not, it's obvious. By eight years old, children have learned not only how to lie persuasively to avoid punishment but also how to tell white lies to protect others from harm. -- The experiment we did tried to measure whether our six-year-olds will lie to protect one of their parents. We asked our parents to deliberately knock over marbles and then to ask their children not to tell on them. Not surprisingly, most of our children were not able to tell such a complex lie: some of them were so eager to tell on their parents that they came looking for us. -- We then did an experiment about cheating. Like lying, cheating is a moral developmental stage. Young children 'play' with cheating for the sheer pleasure of doing so: to test whether it can work and how far they can push it. Experimenting with cheating can also be beneficial for a child's cognitive development. At five- to six-years-old many children will cheat if the opportunity arises. In one study of this age group, 84 per cent knew that cheating wasn't allowed but 56 per cent of the children did cheat. This isn't only because they generally have an inability to inhibit their actions at this age, but also because they'll still be learning about 'what they can get away with'. -- In a room without their parents, the child was asked to move ping-pong balls from a small bucket to a container using a wobbly scoop. It's an impossible task, so did they cheat? In similar experiments all over the world, scientists have observed that virtually all young children will have a go. Then they'll cheat. Our children were no exception. But some of them owned up immediately while others held out to the very end. -- As our children get older, they'll increasingly enter the 'real' moral world where decisions aren't straightforward. We decided to test our children and their parents with some moral dilemmas. There were no 'right' or 'wrong' answers but it turned out that the children were far more idealistic and less pragmatic than their parents. -- Our final experiment was based on a very famous experiment called 'Obedience' which was carried out in 1950s America. Volunteers were asked to give dangerously high electric shocks to someone sitting in another room when a simple question was answered incorrectly. The results shocked the nation. About 65 per cent of people gave the maximum shock possible, while 40 per cent of people continued even when the person was sitting next to them! The person 'receiving' the shock was in fact an actor. -- We wanted to try something similar, although not of course involving electric shocks. We gave four of our children a photograph of a sweet elderly couple who our experimenter says is actually her mum and dad and very special to her. Then she asked the children to tear it up. Would they obey? One child tore up the photo immediately but then he tried to put it back together again straight afterwards. Another tore up the photo very reluctantly; another was deeply unhappy but obeyed. And the final child simply refused to tear up the photo at all. -- The experiment suggests that six year olds may in fact be much more moral than adults, certainly more moral than the American adults tested in 'Obedience'. -- Some people argue that our society these days is on a downward slide. From the experiments and interviews for this programme, there really is little evidence that any of our children are.
Metadata describing this Open University video programme
Series: Child of Our Time; Series 6
Episode 3
First transmission date: 29-01-2006
Published: 2006
Rights Statement:
Restrictions on use:
Duration: 00:59:10
Note: Information leaflets covering the series are also available
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Producer: Dinah Lord
Contributor: Robert Winston
Publisher: BBC Open University
Link to related site: Website:
Subject terms: Child development; Child psychology; Ethics; Families--Great Britain; Interpersonal relations in children
Production number: LSGB399S
Videofinder number: 7175
Available to public: no