Helpfulness, kindness, generosity, are all examples of prosocial behaviors- behaviors that are voluntary and intended to help others. These types of behaviors lie at the foundation of human society and cooperation; they help us build relationships based on trust, love, and mutual respect.
Sometimes it can be difficult to teach children how to be kind and helpful without making it seem forced- after all, you want your children to be genuinely kind-hearted. Many parents also believe that kindness and helpfulness are predetermined (similar to intelligence) but science has proved this is false.
Children are naturally kind and helpful
Children, and even babies, can exhibit signs of empathy and spontaneous helpful behavior. Studies showed that babies can not only empathize with their parents, but also showed a preference for strangers struggling and others who came to help. In several other experiments done on babies to preschool-age children, researchers found that the babies were responsive and willing to help a visibly struggling stranger without instruction. As children grow older, they are more willing to help others using their developing interpersonal and motor skills.
So how can parents encourage this behavior?
Helping others make children happy
Children are happy when they help others. This does not change when we are adults either. Without adult intervention, children from 22 months to 6 years old were more happy when they helped and shared with others.
Do not pressure your child into helping/sharing
Children naturally associate helping and sharing with positive feelings. If parents introduce pressure into the equation, your child’s positive association will deteriorate. Research revealed that children who were pressured by parents were less likely to share. Trying to correct sharing/helping behavior impedes your child’s learning process. They begin to associate sharing and helping others with parental pressure.
What about giving my child prizes for helping?
Genuine kindness and care for others cannot be bought with prizes and toys. Parents who give their children prizes for helping instead undermine their child’s natural motivation. A reward creates an unnatural expectation, which takes away from the child’s natural sense of happiness. Ultimately, you will train your child to derive less pleasure from helping others, and in turn, help others less often.
Instead, praise them when appropriate
In all the experiments mentioned above, praise had no effect on helping behavior. Parents should praise their child when they are being kind and generous! For younger children, praise is a strong motivator which helps build confidence and prosocial skills. Keep in mind that too much praise can also be detrimental- use it wisely!