Skip to Content

What Is Prosocial Behavior

| Examples | 6 Types of Prosocial Behavior | Benefits of Prosocial Behavior | How prosocial behavior develops | How to teach kids prosocial behavior |

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.

child holds hand with toddler

Prosocial Behavior Examples

Prosocial behaviors include factors such as empathy, altruism, generosity, sharing, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and assistance​1​.

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

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 altruistic​2​.

Compliant

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 children​3​.

Emotional

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

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 helpful acts in front of others. People who help others publicly are not afraid to be watched​6​.

Anonymous

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

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 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, 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 peers​11​.

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 empathy​12​.

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 others​13​

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’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 values​14​.

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’ values​15​.

Parents who show sensitivity and thoughtfulness model how to show concern for others. Their children tend to develop empathy and show more concerns 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, causing the rejection of the parent’s 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. 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 actions​18​.

Modeling

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

A study finds that children who do volunteer work 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 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 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 themselves.

Being able to take on others’ viewpoints is an important milestone in cognitive development​23​.

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 others​24​ 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 included​25​.

References

  1. 1.
    Grusec JE, Davidov M, Lundell L. Prosocial and helping behavior. In: Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Social Development. Blackwell Publishing; 2002:457–474.
  2. 2.
    Holmgren RA, Eisenberg N, Fabes RA. The Relations of Children’s Situational Empathy-related Emotions to                Dispositional Prosocial Behaviour. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online March 1998:169-193. doi:10.1080/016502598384568
  3. 3.
    Eisenberg-Berg N, Cameron E, Tryon K, Dodez R. Socialization of prosocial behavior in the preschool classroom. Developmental Psychology. Published online November 1981:773-782. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.17.6.773
  4. 4.
    Bryant BK. An Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents. Child Development. Published online April 1982:413. doi:10.2307/1128984
  5. 5.
    Carlo G, Randall BA. The Development of a Measure of Prosocial Behaviors for Late Adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Published online February 2002:31-44. doi:10.1023/a:1014033032440
  6. 6.
    Kraus MW, Callaghan B. Social Class and Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online July 19, 2016:769-777. doi:10.1177/1948550616659120
  7. 7.
    Calderón-Tena CO, Knight GP, Carlo G. The socialization of prosocial behavioral tendencies among Mexican American adolescents: The role of familism values. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Published online 2011:98-106. doi:10.1037/a0021825
  8. 8.
    Klein N. Prosocial behavior increases perceptions of meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Published online July 18, 2016:354-361. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1209541
  9. 9.
    Flynn E, Ehrenreich SE, Beron KJ, Underwood MK. Prosocial Behavior: Long-term Trajectories and Psychosocial Outcomes. Social Development. Published online November 10, 2014:462-482. doi:10.1111/sode.12100
  10. 10.
    Griese ER, Buhs ES. Prosocial Behavior as a Protective Factor for Children’s Peer Victimization. J Youth Adolescence. Published online October 23, 2013:1052-1065. doi:10.1007/s10964-013-0046-y
  11. 11.
    Patterson GR, DeBaryshe BD, Ramsey E. A developmental perspective on antisocial behavior. American Psychologist. Published online 1989:329-335. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.44.2.329
  12. 12.
    Knafo A, Zahn-Waxler C, Van Hulle C, Robinson JL, Rhee SH. The developmental origins of a disposition toward empathy: Genetic and environmental contributions. Emotion. Published online 2008:737-752. doi:10.1037/a0014179
  13. 13.
    Howes C, Farver J. Toddlers’ responses to the distress of their peers. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online October 1987:441-452. doi:10.1016/0193-3973(87)90032-3
  14. 14.
    Grusec JE, Goodnow JJ. Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology. Published online January 1994:4-19. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.30.1.4
  15. 15.
    Niemiec CP, Ryan RM. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom. Theory and Research in Education. Published online June 25, 2009:133-144. doi:10.1177/1477878509104318
  16. 16.
    Kestenbaum R, Farber EA, Sroufe LA. Individual differences in empathy among preschoolers: Relation to attachment history. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development. Published online 1989:51-64. doi:10.1002/cd.23219894405
  17. 17.
    Hastings PD (Paul D, Rubin KH, DeRose L. Links Among Gender, Inhibition, and Parental Socialization in the Development of Prosocial Behavior. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. Published online 2005:467-493. doi:10.1353/mpq.2005.0023
  18. 18.
    Krevans J, Gibbs JC. Parents’ Use of Inductive Discipline: Relations to Children’s Empathy and Prosocial Behavior. Child Development. Published online December 1996:3263. doi:10.2307/1131778
  19. 19.
    Grusec JE, Lytton H. Socialization and the Family. Social Development. Published online 1988:161-212. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-3768-6_5
  20. 20.
    McLellan JA, Youniss J. Two Systems of Youth Service: Determinants of Voluntary and Required Youth Community Service. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Published online February 2003:47-58. doi:10.1023/a:1021032407300
  21. 21.
    Trommsdorff G. Child-Rearing and Children’s Empathy. Percept Mot Skills. Published online April 1991:387-390. doi:10.2466/pms.1991.72.2.387
  22. 22.
    Grusec JE, Redler E. Attribution, reinforcement, and altruism: A developmental analysis. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 1980:525-534. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.16.5.525
  23. 23.
    Farrant BM, Devine TAJ, Maybery MT, Fletcher J. Empathy, Perspective Taking and Prosocial Behaviour: The Importance of Parenting Practices. Inf Child Dev. Published online July 6, 2011:175-188. doi:10.1002/icd.740
  24. 24.
    Grusec JE. Parenting socialization and children’s acquisition of values. In: Handbook of Parenting: Practical Issues in Parenting. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers; 2002:143–167.
  25. 25.
    Twenge JM, Baumeister RF, DeWall CN, Ciarocco NJ, Bartels JM. Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online January 2007:56-66. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.56

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

    Disclaimer

    * All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *