While we may struggle with delivering and exacting justice here in the adult world, it seems that children as young as 3 have the concept down pat. In a new study published in the journal Current Biology researchers from Germany are finding that toddlers are not only surprisingly empathetic, but that concepts like restorative justice may come intuitively to them.

When examining children between the ages of three and five, researchers found their subjects focused strongly on carrying out justice and punishment for those who “deserved” it. Not only did the children prefer to give missing items back to rightful owners, but if returning the item was not an option, the participants would protect the item, and ensure another party would not take what did not belong to them. Even more interesting was the fact children of this age were just as willing to respond to the needs of another individual — even if that individual was a puppet — as they were to their own. Researchers believe these findings may give us insight into the core of justice in relation to human nature.

“The chief implication is that a concern for others — empathy, for example — is a core component of a sense of justice,” said Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester in a recent press release. “This sense of justice based on harm to victims is likely to be central to human prosociality as well as punishment, both of which form the basis of uniquely human cooperation.”

Researchers believe that human society encourages cooperation through the punishment of those who take without giving anything back. However, other studies of our primate relatives show that chimpanzees will not punish a wrongdoing peer unless that peer has personally wronged them.

This similar sense of justice seems to play out in children as well. Researchers believe looking to children can help us understand the fundamentality of justice to human society by seeing how it develops early on. When examining the subjects, researchers found that children are discriminate in their sharing patterns, giving some of their possessions to puppets who were said to help another individual rather than giving to puppets that were said to behave badly. Children also preferred to allocate punishment to different dolls if they felt the doll was deserving of the punishment.  By 6 years old, researchers found children are willing to take justice into their own hands, giving out punishment to both fictional and real peers if they feel they deserve it, no matter what the consequences are for them. Alternatively, preschoolers who face potential punishment can be compelled to act more generously.

In another experiment, Katrin Riedl, co-author of the study, teamed up with Jensen at the Max Planck Institute in Liepzig, Germany to see if children aged 3 to 5 would intervene on the behalf of others. When presented with a puppet that had “taken” the belongings of another, those children were just as likely to act on behalf of someone else as they were to act for themselves. And when they were given the opportunity to act, they were more likely to return the item than simply remove it.

“It appears that a sense of justice centered on harm caused to victims emerges early in childhood,” the researchers said.

Not only does this discovery show that our sense of justice develops from an early age, and may even be somewhat inherent, it also shows that it can be used as a teaching tool for parents and teachers.

“The take-home message is that preschool children are sensitive to harm to others, and given a choice would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator,” Jensen said. “Rather than punish children for wrongdoings or discuss the wrongdoings of others in punitive or perpetrator focused ways, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as the solution.”

While the study does give us valuable insight into how our concepts of justice develop, there may be more here that children are trying to teach us. What we see from this study is a conception of justice that stems from a pure form of empathy; children feel compelled to intervene not only to restore a sense of fairness, but because they can sympathize with another who is suffering a loss. In an age where our concepts of justice tend to get caught up in bureaucratic, political arguments, there is something to be said for this example. When it comes down to it, justice is acting on behalf of our fellow man, and if young children can see that, we should too.

Source: Riedl K, Jensen K, Call J, et al. Restorative Justice In Children. Current Biology. 2015.