Is the Ability to be Giving and Helpful to Others inborn in Children?

Is the Ability to be Giving and Helpful to Others inborn in Children?

          You probably want your child to grow up to be altruistic, right? That is, you very likelywould want your son or daughter to care for others or want to help others.

          Altruism is defined by some child development psychologists as giving to another at a cost to oneself. In other words, the altruistic child gives something of themselves – a helping hand, a gift, or comfort – when there is nothing particularly to be gained from this gesture.

          Here are some examples in young children:

          Amanda, age three, was watching a friend play with blocks at daycare. When her friend dropped a block, Amanda instinctively picked it up and handed it to her friend.

          When four-year-old Kyle heard his six-year-old brother crying, he went to see what was wrong. Kyle quickly learned that his brother was crying because he couldn’t go outside to play. Kyle went to his own bedroom, got a favorite book, and brought it back to his brother. “Maybe you can read this book,” Kyle said. Kyle understood that by giving his brother a book to read that his brother might feel better.

          Samantha, two, noticed her mother being sad and quiet one day. She sidled up to her mother and began rubbing her hands. Samantha at her young age seemed to realize that by giving something to her mother – for instance, a hand rub – it would help her mother feel better.

          Widely recognized and studied by psychologists, altruism has been examined over several decades. One of the questions researchers have tried to answer is whether altruistic motives are inborn or taught by parents and teachers. Are children born with the trait of being altruistic (or, on the other hand, selfish) or do they learn to be giving (or withholding) to others from their parents?

          Recent researchers seem to think that because altruism is evident in children even under the age of two years that it is a trait that is there from the beginning of their lives. However, they also believe that parental role modeling can play an important role in fostering altruism, even in children who exhibit traits of altruism literally from birth.

          The work of Felix Warneken at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has been reported in Science. In his studies with toddlers, Warneken, who is now a professor at Harvard University, developed situations where he needed help. What he found was that virtually every toddler he studied helped out spontaneously without prompting or coaching.

          Warneken went on to replicate his research findings with even younger toddlers. What he found was that children barely out of infancy could distinguish between situations where help was or wasn’t needed. This showed that young children weren’t just automatically helpful; someone actually had to need their help before the altruistic side of them kicked in.

          Like other psychologists who have studied altruism in children, Warneken believes that parents and teachers can build upon whatever altruistic and prosocial tendencies are inborn.

          Children typically look at what their parents do and imitate them if there is a good relationship between parent and child. Nancy Eisenberg and Paul Mussen, authors of the book The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Childhood, state that parents of altruistic children are nurturant and supportive, model altruism, and create opportunities for their children to show kindness and giving to others.

          Eisenberg, who is Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, has tracked a group of 32 children from preschool into adulthood. She’s found evidence that some children just seem to have altruistic personalities. However, she also has learned that children who acted in an altruistic manner early in childhood continued to show such behavior into adulthood. But she also concludes that you can enhance altruism in your child by talking about the effects of their actions on others and by establishing clear expectations for your child about consistently showing caring behaviors to other people.

          As it turns out, one of the important things you can do with your toddler is to encourage them to play with others. In play, they can learn such prosocial behaviors as sharing, cooperation, and helping.


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