Raising helpful kids:

The perils of rewarding good behavior

© 2009 - 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Children--even babies--can be spontaneously kind and helpful.

Can we improve on what they do naturally?

Maybe. But we should tread carefully.

Studies suggest that prosocial behavior is undermined when we attempt to force it with manipulative or heavy-handed tactics. So before we try to engineer helpfulness in children, we ought to consider the evidence. Here's a review.

Spontaneous acts of kindness

Children show the first signs of empathy very early in life. In one study, babies under 12 months of age noticed when other people were in distress (Roth-Hanania et al 2011).

Babies can also recognize other people’s frustrated intentions and respond with help.

At the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello tested 14-month-old babies by presenting them with stranger in difficulty. 

The man -- an actor pretending for the purposes of the experiment -- was trying to pick up an object beyond his reach. Without even being asked, babies helped him retrieve it, and they were fast: In most cases, the babies responded within 7 seconds—before the man made eye contact or named the object he was after (Warneken and Tomasello 2007).

Experiments on 18-month old babies yielded similar results (Warneken et al 2007). Babies helped a woman retrieve an out-of-reach item (a marking pen) even though they had to cross several obstacles first. You can see this for yourself if you click here to download a video clip).

By the preschool years, kids become capable of even more sophisticated forms of aid, like helping a stranger get the attention of another person (Beier et al 2013), and giving people what they really need, instead of what they ask for (Martin and Olsen 2013).

Why do young children behave this way? It may depend on many factors, including a child's

  • ability to under other people's perspectives and needs (Svetlova et al 2010),
  • experience discussing emotions with parents (Brownell et al 2013)
  • judgment that a person is deserving of sympathy and help (Hepach et al 2013; Vaish et al 2010)

But it also appears that kids enjoy helping. As I note in this blog post, experiments suggest that toddlers feel happy when they give to others (Aknin et al 2012).

So it seems that young children are inclined to spontaneous acts of kindness. What happens when adults try to improve on this situation?

How to spoil a good thing

Free choice, not coercion, makes kids more generous

Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir (2013) wondered what would happen if children were compelled to give away a prize. Would the experience encourage future generosity, or curtail it?

In experiments on 72 young children, aged 3-5, the researchers gave each child a sticker, and then introduced a sad character who needed cheering up. Some kids were told to give their sticker to the character. Other kids were given a choice.

Later kids were given three stickers, and presented with an opportunity to help yet another depressed creature. Kids in both groups gave away at least one sticker. But some gave away two or three, and these were primarily the children who'd experienced free choice. Kids who'd previously been forced to give were only half as likely to donate most of their stickers. (For more details, read this blog post.)

Material rewards turn off toddlers

Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello (2008) tested the effects of offering tangible rewards for helping. The researchers assigned 20-month-old toddlers to one of three treatment groups.

• One group was trained to expect a material reward for helping

• Another group was trained to expect verbal praise

• The third group received no reward at all.

Next, the toddlers were given the opportunity to help an adult stranger.

The outcome?

Compared to the kids in the “verbal praise” and “no reward” conditions, the kids with a history of tangible rewards became less likely to help.

Previous research on school kids has yielded similar results.

Tangible rewards can derail older kids, too

In an experiment conducted by Richard Fabes and colleagues, primary school kids (grades 2-5) were offered the chance to sort stacks of colored paper (Fabes et al 1989).

All the kids were told this task would benefit hospitalized children.

In addition, some kids were also told that they would be given a small toy in exchange for helping.

After their initial opportunity to help, kids were given a second chance to work more on the same task. This time, there was no mention of the hospital kids or the material reward. Kids were simply given the change to spontaneously continue their “volunteer work.”

And what happened?

The kids who had been given toys for helping were less helpful during the follow-up opportunity. They spent less time sorting paper and got less work done.

Moreover, the results were linked with parenting. Motivation was most undermined among kids whose parents routinely used tangible rewards at home (Fabes et al 1989).

Raising more helpful kids: What can we do?

The research on rewarding helpers is consistent with what studies show about rewards in general: Tangible rewards aren’t all bad. They may increase motivation for boring tasks (Cameron et al 2001). But they may undermine motivation when

• Kids are already motivated to perform the task

• The reward is promised ahead of time

• Kids expect to receive the reward regardless of the quality of their performance

So it appears that we encourage helpfulness more effectively when we don’t offer kids prizes.

Praise seems like a good alternative, particularly for younger children. Indeed, studies have reported that mothers who praise their preschoolers’ good deeds are more likely to have prosocial kids (Garner 2006; Hastings et al 2007).

But when it comes to older children,  praise can backfire. (For tips on using praise wisely, see this article on the science of praise.)

Can we take any positive steps to encourage our children’s natural tendencies to help other people?

I think so.

Psychologist Nancy Eisenberg and her colleagues suggest that kids are influenced by the example their parents set. When parents model—and explain—prosocial behavior, their kids may follow suit.

And it appears that helpful kids are linked with same parenting practices that predict a strong sense of empathy and empathic concern (Eisenberg et al 2006; Brownell et al 2013). These include

• Parental warmth

• Secure emotional attachment

• Emotional “coaching” that helps kids learn to regulate their own negative emotions, and

• Inductive discipline (an approach that emphasizes rational explanations rather than arbitrary punishments)

That’s because kids are more likely to help when they feel empathic concern, or sympathy, for others.

So perhaps there isn't any magic shortcut for raising helpful kids. Instead, we need to nurture empathy and teach kids to care.



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References: Helpful kids

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