When kids know better: Paternalistic helping in 3-year-old children

Alia Martin, Kristina R. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Helping others is often more complicated than fulfilling their requests, for instance, when an individual requests something that is not suited to achieving her or his ultimate goal. Are children indiscriminate helpers, responding to any object-directed action or request, or do their helping actions prioritize ultimate goals over specific requests? We examined how 3-year-olds would provide help to an experimenter whose verbal requests were incompatible with the tasks she was trying to accomplish, a situation in which the best way to help was to deny the request and provide an alternative. In Study 1, children were less likely to give the experimenter a requested object when it was dysfunctional and could not allow the experimenter to complete her task than when it was functional. In Study 2, we found that children did not simply prefer functional objects, as they were willing to give the experimenter requested objects regardless of their functionality when the task was to throw objects in the trash. In Study 3, children denied a request for a dysfunctional object when the task could only be achieved using a functional object, but not when the task could be achieved with either object. We also found in Study 3 that children proactively warned an experimenter attempting to use an object not suited to her goal. Our studies show that by at least age 3, children prioritize ultimate goals when helping others, rather than fulfilling any object request.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2071-2081
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


  • Goal understanding
  • Helping in children
  • Prosocial behavior


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