What is Prosocial Behavior
Prosocial behavior is any voluntary action that benefits other people regardless of whether it is costly to the actor themselves. Even something as small as a smile can be considered prosocial behavior because it improves the mood of the person who receives it.
Prosocial Behavior Examples
Prosocial behaviors include factors such as empathy, altruism, generosity, sharing, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and assistance1.
The following are some examples of prosocial behavior 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 older kids pick on him
6 Types of prosocial behavior
Prosocial behavior consists of a wide range of actions that generally fall into six categories:
Altruistic behavior involves voluntary behavior motivated by goodwill and concern for others’ needs even at one’s own expense. Sympathy and internalized principles of helping others often induce random acts of kindness that are altruistic2.
Compliance is also a form of prosocial behavior. Compliant behavior involves helping others when they ask for help. Compared to spontaneous helping, compliant helping and cooperative behaviors are more common among young children3.
People tend to exhibit emotional behaviors when they help others in emotionally evocative situations. Such social situation is highly emotionally charged. People who provide help in highly emotional situations tend to have sympathy responses and other-oriented characteristics (such as empathy and higher levels of morality)4.
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 behavior refers to performing helpful acts in front of others. People who help others publicly are not afraid to be watched6.
Anonymous behavior involves doing something for others without being recognized. Those who receive help do not know who has helped them7.
Benefits of Prosocial Behavior
Children’s prosocial acts 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 meaning8.
Relational bullying is less common for them, and they do not feel as lonely when it occurs10.
On the other hand, a 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 peers11.
How prosocial behavior develops
All babies are self-centered at birth.
In spite of this, prosocial development begins in early childhood.
Even at a young age, a parent’s responsiveness enables the child to learn to respond to the distress of others with empathy12.
Prosocial actions replace self-centered behavior as babies develop the ability to distinguish themselves from others and empathize with them.
By six months, prosocial tendencies in babies emerge. They 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 others13.
How to teach kids prosocial behavior
Developmental psychologists believe that effective internalization of values that produce positive behavior involves two steps:
- Children’s accurate understanding of parents’ expectations.
- Children’s accepting that expectation.
Parents are usually very good at the first step. They give clear instructions and consistent expressions of what they expect in a way that a child understands.
The second step, accepting that expectation, is more challenging.
Here are what parents can do to help their children accept the expectation, internalize values, and put these values into action.
Warm, nurturing, responsive parenting
Both biology and socialization play an important role in prosocial skills development.
Growing up, children’s socialization environment encourages them to adopt a caring attitude that comes from within based on moral development and internalized values14.
Empirical studies show that warm, nurturing, and responsive parents who show unconditional love and acceptance tend to have children who act prosocially.
Children with responsive parents are more likely to develop a secure attachment and accept their parents’ expectations. Positive relationships with their parents help them internalize their parents’ values15.
Parents who show sensitivity and thoughtfulness model how to show concern for others. Their children tend to develop empathy and show more concerns for others16.
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, causing the rejection of the parent’s socialization efforts17.
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. p
Children who realize their actions have an impact on others and develop empathy for those around them are more likely to engage in proactive prosocial actions18.
Parental modeling of prosocial behavior can inspire children to emulate it19.
A study finds that children who do volunteer work are likely to have parents who also volunteer20. The children of empathic parents tend to be empathic themselves21.
Labeling and attributing
Labeling a child’s prosocial behavior is attributing it to their inner qualities and reinforcing the effects of prosocial behavior. When children find explanations for good behavior in themselves rather than the external pressure, they are more likely to exhibit more such behavior.
“It was very kind of you to help that little girl when she fell.”
“You were so generous in sharing your snack.”
Children in middle childhood (aged 7–8) benefit most from this method22.
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 themselves.
Being able to take on others’ viewpoints is an important milestone in cognitive development23.
Children who are encouraged to consider another person’s perspective develop cognitive empathy leading to prosocial moral reasoning and moral behavior.
Encourage, not force, helping around the house
Everyday life provides children with many opportunities to internalize values.
Involving children in natural activities is a great way to develop strong habits that do not feel coerced or forced.
Those who are routinely doing chores to help other family members voluntarily demonstrate more prosocial behavior and concern for others24 than those who only assist when they are asked or paid to do so.
Encourage your child to take on household chores as personal responsibility and a way to contribute to your family’s well-being in daily life.
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 proactive behaviors.
Give children a sense of belonging by creating a sense of community within the family. Include them in family decision-making and help them feel included25.
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