Teddy bear
Toddlers like to make things right, researchers have found. Flickr/Caroline

Maybe toddlers should replace judges. Young children apparently have an innate sense of justice, and they're more interested in setting things right than in punishing wrongdoers, researchers have discovered.

Children 3 and 5 years old who watched different scenarios involving puppets, toys and cookies quickly determined whether or not a "master puppet" was being mean and who was the rightful owner of certain toys or cookies, according to a new study at the University of Manchester in England. And they were much more concerned with restorative justice than with retributive justice. They tended to restore order by returning an item to its owner rather than doling out punishment to thieves or cheaters, said researchers.

The three-year-old children in particular "didn't seem to want to punish; they wanted to help as much as they could," a co-author tells Live Science. "If the only thing they could do was punish the thief, they would just cry."

The study demonstrated that children tend to pay most attention to "what happened to the victim, and they want to make sure they are OK in the end," said Katherine McAuliffe, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Yale University.

The Manchester researchers concluded that children "from a very young age, have some sense of justice, in the sense that they'll treat others as they expect themselves to be treated," said study co-author Keith Jensen. Children in the study were just as concerned about puppets losing a toy as they were about themselves.

Youngsters also seem to be strongly motivated by empathy and the distress of others, rather than a normative sense of right and wrong, such as the notion that "stealing is always wrong," Jensen said.

Other research has shown that babies as young as eight months old can identify, and seek to punish, wrongdoers. Babies will snatch treats away from nasty puppets they had seen previously yelling at another puppet, according to a 2011 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new research suggests toddlers have an innate aptitude for both justice and empathy.