Raising helpful kids: The perils of rewarding good behavior
© 2009 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 helpful, “prosocial” behavior is undermined when we give kids tangible rewards for being kind.
Young children show the first signs of empathy and empathic concern between 12 and 24 months. For example, children as young as 12 months can recognize when other people are in distress, and they sometimes try to comfort these people (Eisenberg and Fabes 1998).
Babies can also recognize other people’s intentions and try to be helpful.
For example, consider the research of Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
In an experiment on 14-month-old infants, researchers found that babies would spontaneously help a stranger by giving him objects that were beyond his reach.
The babies helped the man even though he didn’t ask them for help. He just tried—unsuccessfully—to retrieve the objects. In most cases, the babies responded within 7 seconds—before the man made eye contact or named the object he was trying to reach (Warneken and Tomasello 2007).
Experiments on 18-month old babies have yielded similar results (Warneken et al 2007).
In one experiment, babies helped a woman retrieve an out-of-reach item (a marking pen) even though they had to cross several obstacles first. (If you’d like to see this for yourself,
click here to download a video clip).
How to spoil a good thing
So that’s what babies do without prompting and without being given rewards.
What happens if adults offer material reward to babies for being helpful?
Nothing good. Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello tested the effects of tangible rewards on 20-month old kids. The researchers assigned kids 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.
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.
Tangible rewards can spoil older kids, too
Previous research on school kids has yielded similar results.
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 might seem like a good alternative. 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, like tangible rewards, praise can sometimes 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). 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.
References: Helpful kids
Cameron J, Bank KM, Pierce WD. 2001 Pervasive negative effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation: The myth continues. The Behavior Analyst 24: 1-44.
Eisenberg, Nancy, Fabes, R A, Spinrad, T L. 2006. Prosocial development. In W. Damon (ed): Handbook of child psychology, volume 3: Social, emotional, and personality development. 5th edition. New York: Wiley.
Eisenberg N and Fabes 1998. Prosocial development. In W. Damon (ed): Handbook of child psychology, volume 3: Social, emotional, and personality development. 5th edition. New York: Wiley.
Fabes RA, Fulse J, Eisenberg N, et al 1989. Effects of rewards on children's prosocial motivation: A socialization study. Developmental Psychology 25: 509-515.
Garner PW. 2006. Prediction of prosocial and emotional competence from maternal behavior in African American preschoolers. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 12(2):179-98.
Hastings PD, McShane KE, Parker R, and Ladha F. 2007. Ready to make nice: parental socialization of young sons' and daughters' prosocial behaviors with peers. J Genet Psychol. 168(2):177-200.
Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental Psychology 44(6): 1785 - 1788.
Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A.P., Hanus, D., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children. PLoS Biology 5 (7): 1414 – 1420.
Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy 11(3): 271–294.