A review of research about what encourages children to be “prosocial” – that is, showing kindness and helpfulness – points to the interactions the children have with adults—not just with their mothers, but with multiple caregivers in their families. The research suggests that practitioners should encourage active interaction with the baby by mothers and other family members right from birth.

Prosocial behavior emerges in the second year of life. We all know very well that toddlers are not always kind—they can bite, pinch, and snatch toys and food from others. But at the same time they help, cooperate, share, inform and comfort others. They feed baby siblings and pets, offer their own comfort object to a crying peer and hug their parents when they are injured.

How does this behavior come about?

According to a wide review of research by Dr Celia Brownell at the University of Pittsburgh, it emerges from social interaction between the baby and caregivers, starting at birth. Prosocial behavior starts manifesting itself in one-year-olds with basic things like showing and giving. If these actions receive positive responses from parents, babies’ motivation for prosocial action is enhanced.

A key feature of human infants is that they are raised by more than one adult, including mothers, fathers and others. One anthropologist, Sarah Hrdy, has argued that in this environment, babies appeal to and try to please others in order to get more responsive care. From the earliest age they develop the ability to pay attention to and discern the intentions of the various people around them, which is a foundation for prosocial behavior.

Research has shown that less social interaction is connected to less prosocial behavior. This connection can be seen in autism: an autistic child who cannot connect with others socially is less likely to be prosocial. Similarly, children who experience abusive or neglectful parenting, or who are brought up in orphanages, are less prosocial. And in some cultures that place less emphasis on relating to infants, two-year-olds are less prosocial with an unfamiliar adult.

Parents normally actively support prosocial behavior, encouraging their children to share, be nice and not to hurt others. Research has shown that children who are encouraged more and praised earlier in in this way are more spontaneously helpful later. Parents can help by explaining and simplifying the task— “Look, she dropped something, can you help her?”

Play is another influence on prosocial behavior. One study found that after a period of playing with an adult, 18- to 30-month-olds were more likely to engage in prosocial behavior.

Research has found that the development of prosocial behavior is also encouraged when parents actively discuss emotions and needs with their toddlers. Even showing photos of hugging and holding hands to 18-month-olds made them more likely to help.

It seems that the key to raising kind and caring children lies in the relationships they form from birth with the adults around them. Family services can focus on supporting such relationships, including those with other family members beyond the mother.

Header photo: Ben Gayl. Creative Commons.

References

Brownell CA (2016), Prosocial behavior in infancy: The role of socialization, Child Development Perspectives