Born to be Mild

The Library Life

  - Sara,  Electronic Services Librarian

Born to be Mild - Smithsonian, January 2013

The cover story for the January 2013 edition of Smithsonian magazine, “Born to Be Mild,” asks whether babies are born knowing right from wrong; it reports on various infant and toddler research that aims to discover from where (or when) morality and altruism comes.


I’ve been reading a lot on developmental neuroscience and cognition, and one name that keeps popping up is Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at UC-Berkeley.  In the Smithsonian, she notes that “the elements that underpin morality – altruism, sympathy for others, the understanding of other people’s goals – are in place much earlier than we thought, and clearly in place before children turn 2” (Smithsonian, 38). The article also notes that the last few years have produced a number of studies hinting that

…a child arrives in the world provisioned with rich, broadly pro-social tendencies and seems predisposed to care about other people. Children can tell, to an extent, what is good and bad, and often act in an altruistic fashion. …They are natural helpers, aiding distressed others at a cost to themselves, growing concerned if someone shreds another person’s artwork and divvying up earnings after a shared task, whether the spoils take the form of detested rye bread or precious Gummy Bears.

     …These findings may seem counter-intuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops. …No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies (Smithsonian, 37).


All of this reminded me of a chapter from the book Future Science. The author of the chapter (“Children’s Helping Hands”) was, in fact, another researcher featured in the Smithsonian article. Working at the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University, Felix Warneken’s “Helping Hands’”findings suggest

…that children’s helping is intrinsically motivated rather than driven by the expectation of material reward [or praise]. Apparently, if such rewards are offered, they can change children’s original motivation, causing them to help only because they expect to receive something for it  (Future Science, 22; emphasis mine).


This is interesting information to contemplate, especially if you interact frequently with babies or toddlers. Most people’s natural inclination is to praise excessively good and altruistic behavior in children in an attempt to reinforce it. However, it does make sense to me to, instead, act as though what they did was natural or expected. Perhaps just saying “thanks” and letting them see your pleasure in being able to finish your task due to their help (even mentioning that) may do more to reinforce their natural, helping inclinations than would effusive praise. Something to contemplate and perhaps give a try. You can always go back to effusive praise if that feels too weird to you!


If you are interested in developmental psychology or neuroscience – and especially if you have not yet tried out our new Zinio service – this would be a great article to access. Learn more about Zinio in the website’s eLibrary section ( You’ll want to be sure to give it a try before February’s issue of Smithsonian comes out in Zinio; if you haven’t already downloaded the January issue, you won’t be able to get to it once it’s been replaced with the new one.

Tags for "The Library Life"


Leave a Comment