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Your Toddler Hates You for Being a Loser

Kids as young as 20 months can figure out who the winner is in a scenario — and they like them better

Everybody loves a winner! Even toddlers. That’s what researchers from Aarhus University concluded in a new study into toddlers’ understanding of social status.

In front of a group of 23 toddlers, a team of researchers presented two scenarios performed by puppets, with the goal of finding out how the children responded to the “winner” and “loser” in each performance. In the first scene, two puppets approached the center of the stage from opposite ends. They met in the middle, and the loser puppet yielded to the winner puppet. Afterwards, the kids were asked which puppet they liked better, and 20 of the kids preferred the totally cool winner and ignored that loser puppet who caved in the struggle.

In the second scenario in front of a new group of toddlers, two puppets approached the center of the stage, but instead of being yielded to, the winner puppet kicked that loser puppet’s ass, then proceeded to the other side of the stage. After that one, toddlers preferred the poor loser puppet over the asshole winner puppet.

Lead author Ashley J. Thomas, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard, explains, “Ultimately, we found that toddlers like those who win, but only if they’re deferred to. They don’t like those who win by force.”

Going into the experiment, the researchers had expected that the toddlers would be able to spot a winner, since, as Thomas explains, social hierarchy is a fairly easy-to-learn concept: Attraction to those of higher status can be found throughout the animal kingdom, so one would expect it in humans as well. As to whether this falls under the umbrella of “nature” or “nurture,” however, Thomas explains that the two concepts aren’t so easy to separate. Instead, it’s a bit of both: Toddlers may naturally gravitate toward those of higher status, but they’ve also learned about the world by that age. “Two years is fairly old from a developmental psychology perspective,” Thomas notes.

Interestingly, it was the knowledge toddlers displayed in the second scenario that most surprised the researchers. The fact that they didn’t prefer the winner who won by force reflected their knowledge of social norms around violence, a far more complicated idea than social status. By contrast, Thomas points to a separate study focusing on bonobo monkeys, which showed that bonobos gravitated toward those who achieved status by force. Toddlers however, “responded differently because they care how they won,” Thomas explains.

Barbara W. Sarnecka, a fellow researcher on the study, adds that this says something good about their home environments. Had the children been from more violent households, Sarnecka speculates that the results may have looked different in the latter scenario, as they may have seen violence as an acceptable means to attain status. “One hundred years ago, most people thought that spanking children was totally fine,” Sarnecka says, whereas today, many consider it abusive. Sarnecka says that the results of their study suggest that there’s “evidence that, by 20 months old, these toddlers had already learned a cultural rule that says that it’s not okay to knock someone else down to get your way.”

Now, as the father of a toddler myself, I naturally started to ponder my own home environment. We’re a non-spanking family, so the violence factor wasn’t a problem, but it did get me thinking: Can toddlers can spot winners and losers in their parental relationships? If there’s a big power disparity between their parents, does the toddler notice it? Can they, in short, smell the loser on you?

Sarnecka qualifies her opinion by saying it’s outside the realm of the study, but from her related studies and knowledge as a cognitive sciences professor, she does acknowledge that it’s likely. “I believe it’s true that children typically identify with the ‘dominant’ parent,” says Sarnecka. She gives the example of a simple parental deferral, like if dad defers to mom on most matters, the child will learn to do the same, making mom the final word on things.

“A child growing up with parents obviously gets way more information, over a much longer period of time, than toddlers got from our puppet show,” Sarnecka continues. This means that there would be an even greater understanding of the hierarchy of their home environment. So in short, if you are the loser in your relationship, your toddler is well aware of it. They know who holds the real power in the house, and that’s why they take mommy’s side when the two of you are arguing, even if they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.