posted by Kristin Williamson
October 11, 2011 @ 2:49 pm
Two recent studies provide new evidence that most children are naturally altruistic. While levels and understanding of generosity changes as children mature and a new link to a specific gene can effect just how giving a person may be, positive reinforcement can help cultivate these values and behaviors. When to start? Possibly earlier than you might think.
One study published last week by Plos One found that we might actually understand the concepts of altruism and fairness much earlier than thought. In the study, there was a correlation between the subjects (age 15 months) that were willing to share their favorite toy and those that perceived the difference between equal and unequal rations of food.
These researchers will now examine whether or not these behaviors can be attributed to nature or nurture, but their hypothesis is that the infants are influenced by their parents’ values and beliefs and have already picked up on these norms by observing how people treat each other.
A second study discussed in today’s Wall Street Journal found that while most children are altruistic there’s a variation in a gene in those that are less willing to share. Yet still, influences from home, school and the world seem to play a much bigger role.
The lesson here? Even before our children can talk, they are able to imitate and understand acts of empathy and generosity. Researchers go on to tell us that positive reinforcement can further cultivate these behaviors. In addition to explaining how the study works, WSJ editor Kevin Helliken indicates in the below video that it’s better to praise generous behavior rather than reward it with tangible items. By telling your children that they are generous in response to that behavior, they will begin to think of themselves as generous and will be more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.
- Engage your children in activities that benefit others (sharing, etc.) and they’ll be more likely to be helpful to others in the future.
- Expose kids to empathy by talk about how some other people might feel in different situations.
- Offer praise for generous behavior instead of rewards like toys, candy or money.
- Point out consequences of being unkind to others and how it makes them feel.
- Model behavior of concern and support for others.
- Provide opportunities to give to others both financially and through community service.
Wall Street Journal: Are Children Selfish?
Sources and Suggested Reading:
- Babies Show Sense of Fairness, Altruism as Early as 15 Months, Fox News
- Babies Show Sense of Fairness, Altruism as Early as 15 Months, Science News Online
- Eight Tips to Developing Caring Kids, Dr. Nancy Eisenberg
- ‘It’s Mine!’ The Selfish Gene, Wall Street Journal