Your toddler isn't taking joy in your misfortune, but developing sense of justice.
I’m calling it — Ozy has officially published the most misleadingly titled article of 2018 (so far), “Dang, Your 2-Year Old Is Mean.”
The article focuses on a study done at the University of Haifa in Israel that ostensibly set out to examine schadenfreude in toddlers. Researchers recruited 35 groups, each composed of one mother and her toddler plus a non-related toddler. Each group was assigned to one of two scenarios: the “equal” scenario and the “unequal” scenario.
In the equal scenario, the mother encouraged the toddlers to play together, ignored them for two minutes, then spent two more minutes reading a book to herself before knocking a glass of water onto the book. In the unequal scenario, the mother put the toddler who wasn’t her child in her lap and read the book aloud to him or her for two minutes before spilling the glass of water onto the book. According to Ozy, the results indicate high levels of schadenfreude in toddlers … kind of.
Kids in the unequal scenario ran, jumped and clapped their hands when the water spilled mid-storytime. But the equal scenario didn’t trigger such a gleeful reaction, meaning schadenfreude likely evolved as a response to unfairness. The ability of even small children to experience schadenfreude “means it’s very basic and not something that society and culture affect,” Shamay-Tsoory told OZY.
Here’s the thing, y’all. Schadenfreude is a German word, and like all German words it was created to refer to something highly specific and complex — namely, taking pleasure in the troubles, failures, or humiliations of another person.
If toddlers were tiny sociopaths, gleefully cackling in delight over the misfortunes of the world, they would have responded with delight every single time the glass of water spilled. But they didn’t — they only responded with delight when the spilled water interrupted a situation that violated their internal sense of justice.
That result actually proves that toddlers don’t experience (or at least don’t express) schadenfreude. The toddlers in this study weren’t feeling glee at destruction or misfortune, they were experiencing the emotional pain of injustice. Their happiness when the water spilled wasn’t happiness because the book was destroyed, it was happiness because the unjust situation had been interrupted. They were powerless to stop the injustice from happening themselves, but they were definitely able to recognize and be grateful for the interruption from an outside source.
Toddlers are actually incredibly empathetic little creatures. My 2-year-old, Isaac, has recently begun to name it when someone else is crying. “Cry,” he says, his brow furrowed. He repeats it as he walks around, trying to locate the person in distress. “Cry, cry,” he says, looking in this room and that. And when he finally finds the person crying, he goes right up to them, puts his chubby little hands on their face, and gives them a big kiss smack on the lips.
It’s the sweetest thing in the world, and is evidence of Isaac’s growing capacity for empathy. He doesn’t take joy in people’s tears — quite the opposite. He tries to help in the only way he knows how — with a word and a kiss.
Toddlers comprehend emotional pain in both themselves and others, and a toddler reacting to the instinctive emotional pain of injustice is the opposite of schadenfreude. It’s actually the fragile beginning of developing compassion, and we should recognize and nurture it as such.