Bringing out the everyday hero in your child

Kids are hardwired to help others—but parents can still help nurture children’s altruistic nature.

When Tracy Spinrad’s kids were just toddlers observing the world from the comfort of their car seats, they’d sometimes see people holding up signs at the end of the freeway asking for food or water. “I live in Arizona and it is hot here—really hot—and we almost always try to have water bottles in the car,” she says. 

“I'd always make sure that they were paying attention when it was time to roll down the window and hand a water bottle to someone,” says Spinrad, a professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. “I think that's something they need to see—that we’re looking out for others.”

After all, true heroics aren’t just about saving the world from big-screen supervillains. Rather, it’s about everyday acts of empathy and compassion.

Science has shown that we’re hardwired to help others. Infants as young as 12 months will point at an object in order to help an adult find it. By 18 months, they’ll attempt to comfort someone who’s hurt or in distress. And before they even reach their second birthday, they display helping behavior like giving up food. 

This type of prosocial behavior—helping others because you’re genuinely concerned about their well-being, even if it’ll cost you time, money, or other resources—is known as altruism. And it’s good for everyone involved. “It's not surprising that children who are more prosocial tend to have more friends,” Spinrad says. “They have higher-quality relationships with others, and they're less likely to engage in things like bullying.”

Here’s how parents can help their children become everyday heroes.

Hardwired to help

Experts think that prosocial behavior has deep biological roots—it isn’t something that must be learned. After all, very young children display such behavior, as do chimpanzees.

“I think the standard assumption has been that we are born selfish creatures and have to be reprogrammed to learn the importance of caring about other people,” says Felix Warneken, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “But caring about others is actually part of human nature. It’s not just driven by social learning—it’s something that we spontaneously want to do.”

For example, research shows that when a child sees someone struggling—like they’ve dropped something and can't get it back—the child also experiences a mild state of distress, Warneken explains. But when the child can help the other person fix the problem, this distress goes away.

“If they can help, or if they see someone else help, then they feel better about it,” Warneken says. “Deep down, they have an inclination to care about the welfare of other people.”

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In another study, researchers presented infants with tasty fruits to see if they’d spontaneously give their food to an unfamiliar researcher without any encouragement. 

“By 19 months of age, we see that kids are capable of remarkable acts of altruism,” says lead author Rodolfo C. Barragan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “They're capable of giving a delicious piece of strawberry to a person they've just met, even when it's snack time and they’d probably really like to eat that.”

But though the desire to help may come naturally, that doesn’t mean a child’s learning and environment aren’t involved. Notably, children from Asian and Hispanic backgrounds were more likely to help than those from other cultures, and these cultural norms likely start developing in the earliest stages of infancy.

“Generally speaking, previous findings showed that in those cultures, there's an emphasis on thinking about others,” Barragan says. “Interconnectedness is a dominant cultural value, whereas in European or American culture, for example, there's more of an emphasis on individualism and expressing your own needs and desires.”

Barragan and his colleagues also found that kids with siblings are more likely to help than those without. This again suggests that observing and practicing prosocial skills can boost kids’ natural inclination toward altruistic behavior without being explicitly taught.

Doing good is good for you

It may seem counterintuitive: How do prosocial acts—like giving up food to a stranger at snack time—benefit us?

It turns out that helping is good for the recipient as well as the giver. “Children who are more prosocial also tend to be children who have more friends, more social competence, and fewer adjustment problems,” Sprinrad says.

Research suggests that empathy and perspective-taking likely play a role. For example, preschoolers who have developed what’s called “theory of mind”—or the ability to understand the mental states of other people—also display more prosocial behavior. In turn, there’s a strong correlation between prosocial behavior and well-being, happiness, longevity, and overall health.

For example, in one study of preschoolers, children earned tokens to trade for prizes. Researchers later told children they could donate their tokens to fictitious sick children. At the same time, scientists used electrodes to collect data on the kids’ cardiac electrical activity to record their vagal tone, which is often used to measure the body's stress responses. They found that the act of donating tokens was associated with a higher vagal tone, which is associated with feelings of safety and correlates with better physical health and social skills in young children.

But more broadly, humans are a cooperative species who depend on each other to thrive. “We are a social species—we don’t just live by ourselves,” Warneken explains. “This kind of group living requires a high level of cooperativeness. An individual who acts in purely selfish ways would not thrive in that environment—so kids are growing and preparing to enter this kind of world.”

Raising an everyday hero

Children are programmed to learn languages—but that doesn’t mean we stop talking and expect them to learn it on their own. So though kids may have a biological predisposition for altruism, Warneken says that, like language skills, parents and caregivers should actively nurture this natural tendency. 

Use the right kind of rewards. Research suggests that using material rewards—whether it’s toys, stickers, or money—can make kids less likely to engage in prosocial behavior later because they’re being told that the motivation depends on an external reward.

A better way to encourage prosocial behavior is non-material reinforcement. “Giving kids praise and encouragement when they're being prosocial seems to improve children's prosocial behavior,” Spinrad says. “You can say things like, ‘That was a really kind thing to do, you're a kind person.’”

Helping at home leads to more helping. Doing dishes or watching a younger sibling may sound like mundane tasks, but studies show that helping out parents is positively correlated with prosocial behavior in children. For example, one study found that toddlers as young as 18 months old who participated in more chores at home were more likely to help an unfamiliar adult (in a lab setting). “Doing these helpful tasks in the family can help children understand a sense of responsibility toward others,” Spinrad says.

Volunteer as a family. Participating in prosocial activities like volunteering seems to increase the likelihood that you’ll volunteer in the future, Spinrad says. And studies show that kids who volunteer show more civic responsibility, are more aware of community needs, and believe they can have an impact in their communities. Plus, it promotes empathy, social competence, and altruism.

Pick a cause that you or your kids are passionate about—whether it’s supporting a local soup kitchen or neighborhood cleanup—and volunteer as a family. “If children can see their parents engaged in the community and also pitch in themselves, they may later become dedicated volunteers,” Barragan explains. “That is really the driving force—your children have that opportunity to see and imitate.”

Talk about emotions. As children are learning how to express and regulate their own emotions, they also begin to care about others’ feelings—and how to respond to them. A great way to talk about emotion is through age-appropriate books. In two different studies of toddlers 18 to 30 months, parents who more frequently asked their children to think about and discuss the emotions presented in a picture book had children who were more likely to help others or share. For older children, parents can try a similar technique using their kids’ favorite movies or TV shows to open up broader discussions about characters’ emotions.

Protect the planet. Research suggests that positive experiences in nature during childhood can help kids develop a sense of responsibility toward nature. And we also know that humans everywhere are deeply dependent on the health of the planet.

“Pro-environmental activity is an expression of this deep-seated sense that we're all in it together—me and the Earth, me and other humans,” Barragan says. “Children are recognizing that other people are like them, and they are in fact closely related to one another, so they should be helping one another to grow as a community.

“Ultimately altruism is at the heart of a functioning culture,” Barragan continues. “In cultures where people think that it's important to help each other, those are the cultures where people are happiest. You gain happiness from helping others.”

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