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Prosocial Behavior in Children

| Examples | Types | Why Prosocial Behavior Is Important | How prosocial behavior develops | How to teach kids prosocial behavior |

What is Prosocial Behavior 

Prosocial behavior is any voluntary, intentional action that benefits other people regardless of whether it is costly to the actor themselves. It includes activities such as empathy, altruism, sharing, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and helpfulness​1​.

child holds hand with toddler

Prosocial Behavior Examples

The following are examples of prosocial behaviors in children:

  • Sharing candies
  • Smiling and saying “hello”
  • Saying “thank you” when offered a gift
  • Helping to set plates on the dinner table
  • Consoling a crying child
  • Picking up a toy dropped by others
  • Including another child in a group game
  • Volunteering to help the teacher hand out paper
  • Showing feelings of concern for others
  • Defending a little child when he is picked on by older kids

Types of prosocial behavior

Prosocial behavior generally falls into six types:

  • Altruism
  • Compliance
  • Emotion
  • Dire
  • Public
  • Anonymity

Altruistic

Altruistic behavior involves voluntary helping motivated by concern for the needs of another, even at one’s own expense. Sympathy and internalized principles of helping others often induce altruism​2​.

Compliant

Compliant behavior involves helping others when they ask for help. Compared to spontaneous helping, compliant helping is more common among children​3​.

Emotional

People tend to exhibit emotional behaviors when they help others in emotionally evocative situations. These situations are highly emotionally charged. People who provide help in highly emotional situations tend to have sympathy responses and other-oriented traits (such as empathy and higher levels of moral cognitions)​4​.

Dire

Dire behavior is helping in a crisis or emergency. Emotionally charged circumstances can also accompany this type of behavior. These people often help those who are in a real crisis or need​5​.

Public

Public behavior refers to performing prosocial acts in front of others. People who help others publicly are not afraid to be watched​6​.

Anonymous

Anonymous behavior involves helping others without being recognized. Those who receive help do not know who has helped them​7​.

Why Prosocial Behavior Is Important

Children behaving prosocially are associated with many positive outcomes. 

Prosocial children often feel higher self-worth and self-esteem. They are more likely to perceive life as having meaning​8​.

These children tend to have lower levels of externalizing behavior. They show fewer internalizing symptoms or mental health issues such as borderline personality features in girls​9​.

Relational bullying is less common for them, and they do not feel as lonely when it occurs​10​.

On the other hand, lack of prosocial behavior or display of antisocial behavior is associated with childhood conduct disorder, academic failure, and peer rejection. In turn, these failures lead to an increased risk for depression and involvement with deviant peers​11​.

How prosocial behavior develops

All babies are self-centered at birth. In spite of this, prosocial development begins in infancy.

A parent’s responsiveness towards a child’s distress enables the child to learn to respond to the distress of others with empathy and prosocial responses​12​.

There are two types of empathy – emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

In emotional empathy, a person experiences another’s emotions vicariously.

Cognitive empathy involves understanding another person’s internal state and developing perspective-taking skills.

Prosocial actions replace self-centered behavior as babies develop the ability to distinguish themselves from others and empathize with them. 

By six months, empathic behavior in babies emerges. They can cry when they hear other babies cry. 

As children develop a sense of person permanence, perspective-taking, and personal identity, they begin to comfort peers and adults who appear upset. Children as young as two can display empathic concern for others​13​

Both biology and socialization play a major role in prosocial development. 

Growing up, children’s socialization environment encourages them to adopt a caring attitude that comes from within based on moral development and internalized values​14​.

How to teach kids prosocial behavior

Developmental psychologists believe that effective internalization of values that produce positive behavior involves two steps: 

  1. Children’s accurate understanding of parents’ expectations
  2. Children accepting that expectation

To achieve the first step, clear, frequent, and consistent expressions of expectations are made in a way that the child understands.

Parents are good at this step by giving instructions to their children.

The second step, however, is more challenging. 

Here are what parents can do to help their children internalize values and put these values into action.

Warm, nurturing, responsive parenting

Empirical studies show that warm, nurturing, and responsive parents who show unconditional love and acceptance tend to have children who act prosocially.

Children are more likely to develop a secure attachment and accept their parents’ expectations. The feeling of being close to and related to their parents also helps them internalize their parents’ values​15​.

Parents who are sensitive and responsive model how to show concern for others. Their children tend to develop empathy and show more concern for others​16​.

In contrast, authoritarian parents who use harsh punishment and power assertion to maintain strict control over their children tend to have children who display antisocial behavior. 

These parents model a lack of concern for others. This parenting style generates hostility, which results in the rejection of parental socialization efforts​17​.

Inductive discipline

Using reasoning to discipline avoids the hostility and oppositional behavior that strong punitive discipline provokes. Children are more likely to accept prosocial expectations when they are taught the reasons behind them. 

Children who realize their actions have an impact on others and develop empathy for those around them are likely to engage in prosocial behavior​18​.

Modeling

Parental modeling of prosocial behavior can inspire children to emulate it​19​

For example, children who volunteer are likely to have parents who also volunteer​20​. The children of empathic parents tend to be empathic themselves​21​

Labeling and attributing

Labeling a child’s prosocial behavior is reinforcing their positive behavior and attributing it to their inner qualities. When children find explanations for good behavior in themselves rather than the external pressure, they are more likely to exhibit more such behavior. Children aged 7–8 benefit most from this method​22​.

Teach perspective taking

Previous studies have shown the relations between perspective taking and prosocial behavior.

Perspective-taking is a cognitive process that involves understanding that other people think, perceive, and feel differently from oneself, along with the ability to explicitly infer these mental states in others. Being able to take on others’ viewpoints is an important milestone in cognitive development​23​.

Children who are encouraged to consider others’ points of view develop cognitive empathy leading to prosocial moral reasoning and moral behavior.

Encourage, not force, helping around the house

Everyday routines provide another source of internalized values. Involving children in natural activities is a great way to develop strong habits that do not feel coerced or forced.

In comparison to children who only assist their parents when they ask or pay them to, those who are routinely doing chores to help other family members demonstrate more prosocial behavior and concern for others​24​

Encourage your child to take on household chores as personal responsibility and a way to contribute to your family’s well-being.

Engage children and make them feel included

Practicing prosocial behaviors relies on the belief that you are part of a community in which people help one another, support one another, and love one another. People who feel excluded are less likely to engage in these behaviors.

Therefore, give children a sense of belonging by creating a sense of community within the family. Include them in family decision-making. Help them feel included​25​.

References

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