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Today I observed three children at a birthday party become involved in an extremely serious altercation including the use of (toy) weapons.

Tears were dropping, threats issued, punches and kicks thrown and yet in the space of a few minutes the children had formed a new bond of friendship and were playing contendedly.

It made me consider the wider social impact; what is it that causes teenage/adult human beings to hold personal grievances and grudges for longer periods of time when children seem so willing to forget past transgressions?

I am sure there must be a biological mechanism at work from both the child and adult perspective so if any sociologists, child psychologists or behavioural researchers read this forum it would be great to get a detailed answer.

I suspect similar patterns of behaviour exist in other cub/child/young mammals in social groupings.

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The short answer, kids live in the now. They tend to forget everything quickly. A child can be crying about their milk being spilled one moment, and playing the next. They don't think as much about past or future, just what is happening now, and NOW is a big deal. This can cause problems in some ways, but the plus side is they are quickly side tracked from whatever was bothering them before.

They don't hold grudges for the same reason you can make them forget how fun banging on the trashcan or drawing on the wall was. The moment something is out of sight it's quickly forgotten. The offense of 30 seconds ago don't matter, because that was back an eternity ago, and is not NOW.

That 'eternity ago' thing was only half a joke also. It's been argued that children actually experience time different, because of their length of life and perspective. A 2 year old has been alive for a tiny fraction as long as it's parent's have, it has less then a tenth the life experience. However, since they measure time relative to the length of time they have been alive that means that 30 minutes feels like it's 10 times longer to them, because that 30 minutes actually makes up more then 10 times the amount of their life that it does for an adult. If this is true it explains why a 15 minute wait is an eternity to a young child. However, it also means that something that happened a day ago feels like it was weeks ago to a young child. It's easier to forget pass offenses if it feels like they happened in some distant past of time.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's really interesting about the time paradigm; do you have a source? $\endgroup$ – Venture2099 Jul 13 '15 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Venture2099 no sorry. I remember learning it a long time ago, but I can't say I recall the specific source. I think it was mentioned from one of the groups I volunteer with children, during their mentor training, but I've volunteered with many such groups and I can't recall which it was. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 13 '15 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ Found it - Adler R (1999-12-25). "Look how time flies . . .". New Scientist. Retrieved 2009-10-22. $\endgroup$ – Venture2099 Jul 13 '15 at 22:17
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I am neither a child psychologists nor a behavioral researcher, but a C++ programmer. Nevertheless I happen to have what I think is not a totally uninformed opinion on the matter, so here's my €0.02:

I think the biological mechanism at work here is intelligence. What children do is what you see among most of the social animals you can watch: dogs, crows, monkeys. They have a conflict (either over some resource or over their standing in the group), fight it out, and once it is solved, they will get along as if nothing ever happened. Only the members of very few, and rather intelligent, species will hold grudges against their peers. The big apes do, elephants do (although not as it is described in the old stories), crows do, dolphins might do. This is because holding grudges require a long-term strategy, long-term goals, and/or a system of morale and ethics.

If someone damaged your standing in the social hierarchy by taking away something from you, then this someone is threatening you climbing up one rung on the social ladder. Improving your place on the social ladder, however, is a long-term project. This is something apes work on for years, and humans work on for decades. You know that this person might forever be in your way if you let it get away with it, so you do need to fight this out. IMO, this is, if you cut it down to the bare bone, what holding grudges is about.

Of course, our societies are very complex even compared to those of the apes (you could switch your job and never run into that person again), and even the great apes have rather complex societies: Frans de Waal, in his book Peacemaking among Primates, describes how males chimpanzees pick their friends according to their political agenda ("If I manage to make Luke my mate, we could dethrone Harold, and while I might not be strong enough to be king myself, if Luke becomes king, he will have to give me a lot of freedom, or I'd side with Luke and dethrone him in turn."), while females stick to their preferences. ("I just don't like Lara. I never liked Lara. I will never like Lara. Lara is a bitch.") So it is not as simple as that. But I believe a lot of this is still in us, and this makes a big difference.

Morale and ethics, too, require intellect. De Waal argues that, to a certain extend, the great apes do have morale principles. He describes a scene where a new chimp was added to the group, and because he didn't know the rules yet (they all have to be indoors before anyone gets their evening meal), he caused everybody having to wait for their dinner. Knowing their chimps, once he was inside, in order to protect him, the humans overseeing the colony separated the one who caused the delay. However, they were very surprised that this didn't spare the poor chap a severe beating by the whole group when they met outside the next morning – because they remembered that the one individual did them wrong. IMO this is a perfect example of a scene that children up to a certain age will mostly have forgotten about in the morning, so they never act on what happened last night, let alone longer ago.

IIRC, human children only begin to overtake chimps intellectually when they are three or four. And, as I said before, our societies are much more complex than those of the other apes. So children have a lot to learn until they are able to have their own web of morale believes that resembles the one adult members of their society have. Until then, they just do not have enough knowledge to understand that someone did them wrong by their society's standards, or even to act upon that knowledge.

Of course, this is just one angle to look at the problem from, but it's the one that came to my mind immediately when I read your question. I am, however, very interested in what others will have to say about the issue.

P.S.: For a very interesting different angle on apes vs. other social animals I suggest Mark Rowlands' The Philosopher and the Wolf. (You do not have to be a dog lover to find this interesting.)

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    $\begingroup$ "...this is a perfect example of a scene that young children will mostly have forgotten about in the morning, so they never act on what happened last night, let alone longer ago." Support for this statement with appropriate (reputable) sources would make this a stronger answer. Personally, I believe preschoolers have very good memories, and that forgetfulness has little to do with this behavior. $\endgroup$ – anongoodnurse Jul 12 '15 at 5:55
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    $\begingroup$ Sources are more helpful than straw men (the statement that a 3 day old does not have a memory is really quite a straw man. Of course they don't. What does that have to do with a 3 year old? $\endgroup$ – anongoodnurse Jul 12 '15 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ @sbi I thought your answer was actually fantastic and I don't think bikeshedding about minor aspects will improve it. I also have the Philosopher and the Wolf on my bookshelf and have yet to start it. Thanks for a great first answer. $\endgroup$ – Venture2099 Jul 12 '15 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ I don't believe it's about forgetfulness (my 5yo regularly amazes me) - it's about not carrying a grudge as that is something we only learn later on, and let's face it: it's among the most counterproductive practices, we know this, yet still we do it. Adults are fools :-) $\endgroup$ – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jul 13 '15 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ ^^ Did you also miss the part about arguing in the comments? It seems you have a real bone to pick with @sbi and have continued to debate the issues. I also don't think sarcasm paints you in the best light as a moderator. $\endgroup$ – Venture2099 Jul 13 '15 at 22:14
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My personal theory about this is that this is about the seriousness of the conflict, and how you emotionally handle it.

Sharing and taking turns is hard, it is one of the key skills we want pre-schoolers to learn. It involves and understanding of not only other kids desire and right to have that fulfilled, but also an understanding of something that may happen in the future - it will be my turn next.

As adults, these things are easy to understand, we have mastered this along time ago.

Imagine in an office, you have a pinball machine to use on breaks. Well, one day, I really want to use it, but so does Paul and Sally. Do I push them out of the way, or start crying? No, I simply say tell them to let me know when they are done, since I would like to play.

Similarly, if I am in a meeting and people do not agree with my solution, but likes Paul's better, I might feel some annoyance or anger. However, I might point out how if we incorporate ideas from my solution, it will end up better overall. This is conflict resolution.

There is no need for tears and drama and pushing people away - but I might feel a brief disappointment in having to wait for the pinball machine, but a moment later it is gone. I might be upset that people don't agree with my solution, but in the end I understand why the solution picked was the best.

I think these are simply the same emotions and reactions that kids feel when sharing toys, they just don't have the capability handle them yet. The result is still to move on, and they kids have learned how to resolve a conflict.

Now, if Paul and Sally ALWAYS used the pinball machine on every break, I might end up bearing a grudge. If one of the kids playing always wanted the 'best' toy, I bet you would see a grudge too. I have had my 4 year old tell me:' 'A' hit me today', while laughing, since he and 'A' usually play well together, it was a one time thing. Then he has also said: 'I don't like playing with 'B', he hits and doesn't listen when I tell him to stop. '

So I think the key here is not the expression and scale of the emotions and reactions, which the kids are in process of learning, but the seriousness of the actual issue.

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    $\begingroup$ " if I am in a meeting" - clearly, you haven't experienced a vast majority of organizations out there, since they are more likely to have a 3-year-old methods of conflict resolution :) $\endgroup$ – DVK Jul 13 '15 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ For children, some of their conflicts are way more serious than yours with Paul and his solution. Still they will go back playing with their peers, while you might hold a grudge with Paul for weeks. Why? $\endgroup$ – sbi Jul 15 '15 at 6:56
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Children have short memories. They can't remember that their "friend" of this moment was someone who hit them a few minutes ago.

They also have limited understanding of cause and effect. Most adults will "attack" each other (verbally or otherwise) for a reason. Young children don't understand that, and even if and when they hit each other, there's usually no reason or motivating force behind it.

This has a biological basis in children and adolescence, the underdevelopment of the pre-frontal cortex specifically, and an imblance in the development of thinking processes, generally.

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