DURHAM, N.C. — Choose your words carefully! Children as young as three years-old know a bad excuse when they hear one, according to a team from Duke University. Researchers say preschoolers understand that some excuses are better than others when adults fail to follow through on a promise.
“At 3 to 5 years old, kids are on to you. They know when you’re giving a bad excuse,” says first study author Leon Li in a university release.
The researcher conducted this study with developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello as part of his Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience at Duke. This analysis encompassed a total of 64 kids (ages 3-5). All of the children viewed a series of videos in which puppets promised to show them a cool toy, went out of frame to go get it, but then came back with no toy.
Upon returning empty handed, the puppets either gave a good excuse for failing to deliver (“I had to help my friend with his homework”), a bad excuse (“I wanted to watch TV”), or no excuse at all. Study authors then asked the children if they believed the puppets were wrong or not, and why. Generally, the kids agreed that, regardless of the excuse, it’s wrong to renege on a promise. However, the children were much more understanding when the puppets at least gave them a good excuse.
Study authors believe these results indicate toddlers are quite capable of understanding that obligations to help others take priority over selfish desires. Notably, a lame excuse appears to be just as bad as giving no excuse at all.
“Previous research has suggested that in some cases, young kids will just take any reason to be better than no reason at all,” Li adds. “But here we showed that kids do pay attention to the actual content.”
‘Because I said so’ is a ‘lame’ reason
The children were also asked to explain their responses, with the justifications varying by age. In comparison to three-year-olds, five-years-olds were generally better at articulating their arguments in terms of what the puppets “should” do or were “supposed” to do. This suggests that children have a more thorough understanding of obligations by age five. Surprisingly, however, it’s worth noting that bad excuses didn’t make the children less inclined to say they “liked” the puppets or would invite those puppets to a play date.
“Usually if someone breaks a promise and gives you a lame reason, it implies they’re not really a good friend,” Li explains. “Children this age don’t make that connection. They’re just not there yet.”
This project is part of a larger field of research focused on how children come to appreciate and act on cultural and moral norms regarding how people behave and treat each other.
“Morality is a type of common ground that we have with others, with mutual expectations about how we should behave and what counts as good grounds for justification,” Li comments. “We’re showing that young children become attuned to this common ground at an early age.”
Study authors add that any adult who has ever used the classic fallback phrase “because I said so,” should take note of these findings and avoid similarly lame excuses in the future.
“Kids are paying attention and can tell that is a lame reason.”
The study is published the journal Cognitive Development.