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Perhaps we can all be grateful that toddlers aren’t professional debt collectors.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you’re in debt and someone sent a 3-year-old to your door. One glance at those large, innocent eyes looking up at you and asking you to settle up would probably send you running for your checkbook. I doubt you’d even attempt to negotiate your debt. You definitely wouldn’t slam any doors in their faces.

But watch out if a toddler ever wants to loan you something; you might just fall into accidental debt. A new study demonstrates that three-year-olds know when you owe them.

In order to get a true measure of indebtedness, a series of experiments was performed with resources a toddler might value most: stickers and toys. Markus Paulus at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, took three-year-olds and five-year-olds in groups ranging between 28 and 43 kids and had them participate in a sharing game. The toddlers were tested individually, and had to choose how many of their stickers they wanted to share with specific toy animals of different colors. The game was intentionally crafted so that the toddler would choose a favorite animal to share more stickers with. There were winners and losers. Sadly — if you can feel sorry for a toy — one toy animal only got one sticker or no stickers at all. Such is life.

Researchers leveled the toy animal playing field by showing the toddlers that each of the animals was actually IW (independently wealthy), with its own sticker collection. After adding them all up, kids were shown that each toy animal had the same number of stickers, so even the sad, disadvantaged animals balanced out to the same amount.

Then came time for payback. Suddenly, the toy animals were gifted with irresistible toys that would cause even the most disciplined three-year-olds to stop in their tracks, swoon and start to whine, er, pine — colorful balloons, oh-so-shiny marbles and coloring books graced each animal. Each animal had the same number and type of toys. For a few rounds, the toddlers were told to choose which animals they’d ask to share its alluring resources. Time and time again, the toddlers approached the animals to whom they had given the most stickers.

“At this age, expectations for reciprocity seem to develop, and these expectations start to affect children’s behavior,” Paulus told Credit.com.

If No One Sees It, It Never Happened

Interestingly, researchers then varied the study a little. This time, they had the animals leave the room before the toddlers decided how many stickers to share with each one. So, technically, the toy animals never “saw” when toddlers gave them preferential treatment or more stickers. But by age 3, their young minds already knew that a favor done without a happy recipient didn’t count in the favor bank. When it came time for the toddlers to hit up which animal they’d ask for toys, they no longer asked more from the animals to whom they’d given more stickers. They seemed to know the favor would never be recognized if it hadn’t been seen.

Why It Matters

“I think it really helps us to know how deeply wired we are for relatedness,” said child psychologist Dr. Bob Bartlett in White Plains, NY. From the moment a child is born, the little person relies on expectancies and patterns to navigate life, he said. Nursing mothers and their newborns often perform a “complicated dance” of relating and needing space through body posturing and eye contact, says Bartlett. “That becomes woven into the way we connect with other people as we go forward. So we’re really wired for a sense of expectancy.” Our first experiences of fairness and indebtedness shape our philosophies of meaningful relationships.

“From early on, our parents and caregivers help teach us what to expect from relationships — how sharing is undertaken, how others are thought about. They emerge and really take shape,” Bartlett continued. And we learn reciprocity as it is reinforced by our family and by larger communal settings such as preschool, he said.

It can be witnessed when a toddler’s sense of unfairness is spot on — as soon as they see another kid receive something they don’t have, says Dr. Bartlett. (Just hand an ice-cream cone to another toddler, and see what happens with yours.)  “Automatically a child will want what’s given to another,” Bartlett says. “It’s all based on our own need of wanting others to attend to us and give to us.”

And adorable toddlers certainly know how to gain credit in your heart.

Remember, modeling good financial habits can help your kids later in life. You can go here to learn about getting control of your money. And you can view a free snapshot of your credit report by enrolling in an account on Credit.com.

Image: Christopher Futcher

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