Raising helpful kids:

The perils of rewarding good behavior

© 2009 - 2020 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.

The developmental origins of helpfulness: Spontaneous acts of kindness in babies and toddlers

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. 

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; Hepach et al 2019).

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. 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, prompts generosity in young children

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 (a puppet) 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.

Why does forced sharing make children less likely to share spontaneously? International research provides us with an answer:

Give preschoolers a choice between sharing and hoarding, and kids show greater happiness when they share (Wu et al 2017). And preschoolers are aware that sharing makes them feel good. They anticipate positive feelings, and this prompts them to be generous (Paulus and Moore 2017).

But preschoolers don't get the same, natural high when they are forced to share (Wu et al 2017). Thus, forced sharing may prevent kids from learning to associate sharing with positive feelings.

Material rewards may actually deter toddlers from helping

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.

Another experiment on 3-year-olds yielded similar results (Ulber et al 2016).

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 kids to be more helpful: 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 under certain conditions, tangible rewards can actually sap motivation. Tangible rewards tend to backfire if:

  • A child is already motivated to perform the task.
  • The reward is used as a bribe (promised beforehand, as compensation).
  • A child expects to receive the reward regardless of the quality of his or her performance.

Praise seems like a good, alternative motivator, 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,  even praise can be counterproductive. (For tips on using praise wisely, see this Parenting Science article on the science of praise.) 

So is there anything else we can do -- aside from being careful with the use of rewards and praise?

I think so.

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

In addition, helpfulness in children is associated with many of the same factors that predict empathy and empathic concern (Eisenberg et al 2006; Brownell et al 2013).

In particular, helpful kids tend to have secure attachment relationships with their parents. Helpful children are also more likely to have parents who provide

  • high levels of parental warmth,
  • emotional "coaching" that helps children learn to regulate their own negative emotions, and
  • inductive discipline (an approach that emphasizes rational explanations rather than arbitrary punishments).

It makes sense that factors linked with empathy would also correlate with helpfulness. That's because empathy itself is linked with helpfulness. We are more likely to offer help when we 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. Check out my evidence-based tips for teaching empathy.


References: Raising helpful kids

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Aknin LB, Hamlin JK, Dunn EW. 2012. Giving leads to happiness in young children. PLoS One. 7(6):e39211.

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Brownell CA, Svetlova M, Anderson R, Nichols SR, and Drummond J. 2013. Socialization of Early Prosocial Behavior: Parents' Talk about Emotions is Associated with Sharing and Helping in Toddlers. Infancy. 18:91-119

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Content last modified 2/2020