How to raise helpful kids.
As a therapist working with preschoolers, and prior to that as I worked closely with preschoolers in a nursery setting, it was a typical observation to see parents make their child share a toy with another child. And the child's refusal to comply would lead to frustration of the parent, and the parent would often ask for advice on how to handle this. It seems that the general assumption is that little children are selfish.
Research by Warneken and Tomasello (2009) has researched the spontaneous prosocial behavior of little children. Little children are spontaneous kind, and helpful. This might baffle some parents as it might go against the experience that they seem to have with their children.
The research found that children show the fist signs of empathy very early in life. In on study (Roth-Hanania et al. 2011) found that babies under 12 months noticed when other people were in distress.
Warneken and Tomasello tested 14-month-old basis by presenting them with a stranger in difficulty. The babies spontaneously helped a man, who seemed to be in difficulty to pick up an object, retrieve the object. In most cases the babies responded within 7 seconds - before the man made eye contact or named the object.
In another experiment 18-month old babies helped a woman retrieve an out of reach object even though they had to overcome several obstacles first.
As they get to preschool children become able to help in more sophisticated ways. There might be many factors at play in this ability, but it also seems that kids really enjoy helping. It makes them happier.
Why do so many parents feel that their child is not so generous? The key is free choice, and not coercion. Forcing your child to share a toy, rather than giving him the choice, will make the child less generous.
In a similar experiment to the one mentioned in an earlier post, 72 young children between 3 and 5 were given a sticker. A sad character in need of some cheering up was introduced. Some kids were told to give the sticker to the character, others were given a choice.
Later the kids were given 3 stickers, and presented with an opportunity to help another sad creature. In both groups, the kids gave away at least one sticker. But some gave more, and these were most of all the children who had experienced the chance to make their own choice.
Research after research shows that routinely used tangible rewards makes children less motivated. This does not mean that they are all bad. They make increase motivation for boring tasks, but they may undermine motivation when kids are already motivated to perform the task, when the reward is promised ahead of time.
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