A critical foundation to a virtuous life is treating others as you wish to be treated, also known as the Golden Rule. Acting in accordance with this principle involves shifting perspective away from the self to others. How can we prompt children to look outside the self? Past research suggests that doing so can be challenging at all ages, but especially for children. Yet the capacity to expand one’s perspective beyond oneself is woven into the fabric of everyday language, in the subtle choices available for framing life experiences. Languages universally permit us to treat the same event as regarding the self (literally, me) or as regarding people more broadly (with generic pronouns, such as we, you, or one).
The proposed work asks how, and in what ways, providing subtle linguistic cues may encourage children to shift their perspective from self- to other-focused. We propose a series of four studies with 460 children 5-6 years of age to explore how using generic language may promote children's attention to the character virtues of kindness, caring, and consideration for others. Methods include experiments that test young children’s their sensitivity to subtle yet fundamental variations in how ideas are expressed, as well as an observational study that will examine how messages embedded in parents’ conversations correspond to children’s positive virtue characteristics. This work builds on a theoretical perspective in which language provides not just explicit content, but also powerful implicit messages about abstract ideals and values. Outcomes will include conference papers, journal articles, media commentary, and novel materials for potential use by parents and teachers. In this way, we hope to learn how implicit messages foster children’s attention to important character virtues, and provide the tools for those working with young children to help them develop these qualities.