Innate kindness 

Recently my 20 month old scared his baby brother. I saw him look at me for a reaction, his bottom lip pouting, tears in his eyes. He didn’t cry but I could see something in his face: he didn’t like his baby brother being sad.
“It’s ok” I said, “you just got too close”.
He looked back down at his brother who was still whimpering slightly, touched his chest then laid down next to him. He calmed and he leant across and planted a noisy kiss on his lips.

This observation got me thinking about the nature of kindness. Are people born kind or do they learn kindness? We talk a lot about growing up around her kindness but are we kind because we’re part of her or because we were brought up by her? Is kindness innate or learned? I decided to look into it and my research first took me to the work of psychologist Michael Tomasello.

I read a study called Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees and one of the first paragraphs drew my attention:

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This was exactly what I had observed with my son this morning.

The research in this paper shows that although human infants help and cooperate more than other animal species (even with strangers and when they receive no benefit in return) other primates also show similar tendencies, albeit on a smaller scale.  This research suggests therefore that altruism was present in some form in our common ancestor, thus demonstrating its innateness.

A later study, however, showed some flaws in Tomasello’s argument.  Two professors Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Carol S. Dweck carried out similar experiments only this time there was a control group in which the people carrying out the experiment interacted differently with the infants during the ‘warm up’ getting-to-know-you part. The experiments concluded that toddlers learn social cues very quickly and the short amount of ‘warm up’ time before the experiment in the initial study primed the toddlers into an altruistic mindset. The full study is here.

After reading both studies it is my belief that we are born with the ability to be kind but to what extent is developed by how we are nurtured. I like to think therefore, that we, LJM1 & I, are kind not only because we are part of her, but because of how she nurtured us. I’m hopeful that all the little Love Join Mes will inherit her kindness; they will certainly be nurtured with it. 

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