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Babies: Born To Be Good?

Documentary examines morality and early child development (image courtesy Stormy Nights Productions, Fuxi Films and CBC's The Nature of Things)

When award-winning filmmaker Eileen Thalenberg decided to make the documentary Babies: Born To Be Good? she headed to the laboratories of U of T’s Kang Lee in Canada and China.

The result airs on CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, October 25 at 8 p.m.  

“A great deal of the breakthrough research in the area of moral development is being done by Canadians,” said Thalenberg. “As we travelled around Canada, the U.S. and China, we watched them at work with children from a few months old and up. What they are discovering is providing a whole new way of looking at the complexity of what even the youngest babies may be thinking.” 

Lee, a University Distinguished Professor with the University of Toronto’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, is the author of leading research about the early development of honesty and lying. He explained the importance of what is called prosocial behaviour – voluntary actions that help others.

“Humans are evolved to be highly social and there are biological predispositions in all of us (babies included) to be prosocial from early on,” said Lee. “Young children not only increasingly become dishonest about their transgressions but also learn to tell prosocial lies.”

Lee cited the example of a toddler telling a white lie that an undesirable gift they receive is something they like.

“We at U of T show that children are initially honest around 2 years but with age they become increasingly capable of telling lies,” he said.

In China, children are socialized to tell lies in order to be modest and help out a common good, Lee said.

“Like the other studies in the film, children all over the world may initially be honest,” said Lee. “With age and increased socialization to their cultural norms, children become different in terms of when and where they will lie and for what social or personal purposes.”

The documentary offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of children at play as they encounter moral dilemmas and are shaped by their surroundings and culture. A two-year-old exhibits remarkable patience and kindness, leaving behind toys to help an adult.

“In our documentary we really wanted to get across how wonderful and surprising children’s minds are,” said Thalenberg.

“I think adults will come away with a whole new level of respect for them.”