A Chinese-Canadian study published in Developmental Science shows that kids learn to "flatter" around the age of 4. The finding was based on kids in three age groups, 3, 4, and 5, being asked to judge artworks. The 3yo's weren't, but by the time they're 4, kids' assessments were more flattering when the artist was present, whether the artist was a stranger or not.
Set aside for a moment the methodology; I'll assume the developmental sociologists who peer-reviewed the study know how to quantify the art criticism skills of toddlers. What sounds wrong to me is this interpretation by Dr. Kang Lee, co-author of the paper:
Lee suggests adults flatter for two reasons. It can be to show gratitude for some positive action in the past. As well, when they’re meeting someone for first time – someone who may turn out to be important for their advancement down the road – flattery is also used as an investment for future favourable treatment from the person. “We don’t know which the child is doing,” says Lee. However, the fact that the older children flattered strangers as well as familiar people suggests “they are thinking ahead, they are making these little social investments for future benefits.”I just think this is an uncritical crock, and expecting a child's behavior to mirror one of two arbitrary interpretations of adult motivation seems extremely dubious.
If the kids in the study are anything like our kid or her friends and preschool peers, they grow up in a hermetic hothouse of encouragement and praise, especially when it comes to creative activities like making art. The kid's surprised us several times by praising our work using what are obviously the phrases and responses that have been modeled for her by us and her teachers. If a 4-yo is better at that than a 3-yo, who would be surprised?
But more seriously, this "social investment for future benefits" interpretation doesn't seem to make any accounting for the here and now. Wouldn't a more likely explanation for flattery be an immediate desire for well-being and positive interaction? Wouldn't a kid be learning how to talk to someone in a way that makes them liked, or at least a way that produces pleasant results? Not that kids are zen masters living entirely and only in the moment, but it seems more likely than the more Fountainhead-y explanation Lee puts forward.