UNICEF considers the early childhood period, which spans the period up to 8 years of age, as the “Formative Years”. During this period, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical abilities develop rapidly. Therefore, it is crucial for parents to provide adequate nutrients as well as interactive and stimulating environments for the children.
Aside from making sure that the child’s personal needs are met, parents should also acknowledge that it is important for the child to be able to practice fulfilling other people’s needs.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be able to go to protests and rallies or engage in humanistic volunteering at various NGOs at the ripe age of two years old. The first step to raising a civically engaged human being is by encouraging them to act upon prosocial behaviors.
What is prosocial behavior?
As the term is self-explanatory, prosocial behavior is the complete opposite of antisocial behavior — the social norm-defying behavior that violates the rights of others.
Instead, prosocial behavior consists of behavior that is performed voluntarily and is driven by the intention of benefiting others. Dunnfield (2014) argues that prosocial behavior could be manifested into three subtypes: help, share, and comfort.
Help is a subtype of prosocial behavior that is driven by the need to alleviate other people’s struggles in completing goal-directed behavior. It is one form of prosocial behavior that manifests earliest, as it begins when children turn one year old, and rapidly develops in the first half of their second year. It could look like this:
- Reaching objects that are out of a friend’s reach
- Tying a sibling’s shoelaces
- Picking an item that you accidentally dropped
Another form of prosocial behavior is sharing. When children willingly share, they are aware of the unequal access to resources between them and are driven to solve it through equal resource distribution. This prosocial behavior that usually emerges between the ages 18 to 24 months could manifest as:
- Taking turns in playing with their favorite toy with siblings
- Splitting their snacks with their friends
Comforting is a subtype that is driven to ease others’ emotional distress. Children develop emotional understanding in their first year of life. However, comforting requires the skills to represent, track, and respond to emotional expressions appropriately, which emerges between the age of two to four years old. Here are a few comforting behavior examples:
- Hugging friends who are crying
- Encouraging a frustrated sibling to keep going on
Ways to promote prosocial behavior in children
Various studies have shown that prosocial behaviors generate many positive outcomes. It has been associated with children’s well-being, healthy peer relationships, and self-esteem. To raise children that are able and willing to help, share, and comfort, here are some ideas you could do:
Using books and digital media
Reading, listening to, and watching various media is a great way for parents to cultivate their children’s prosocial skills. However, Mares and colleagues’ studies on prosocial media effects pointed out that children had a hard time understanding the moral lessons the media intended to deliver. Thus, you should take part in this process.
Instead of merely accompanying their media consumption, you could also start conversations with them regarding insights and moral lessons from the movies, TV shows, and books they consumed. Here are a few questions that could be the entry-point for the discussions:
- Could you tell me what was the story we just watched/read/listened to?
- What did the characters do?
- What do you think about the characters?
- How do you feel about the things that they did?
- What do you learn from them?
Another way to develop prosociality is through role-play. A recent experiment has shown that pretend play is the “training ground” for them to develop their social skills and interactions. Another perk of it is that it is a fun activity to engage in.
Indeed, it is nice to have a friend. Moreover, having friends over also allows individuals to be nice people as well. Lacey and colleagues in their article pointed out how scheduled social interaction and play environments at home are beneficial for children’s social and emotional skills development, including ways to be a good and caring friend.
For some children, interacting with peers comes naturally. However, others also have a hard time adjusting to new people and environments. Here are a few ways you could support children in playdates:
- Establish a stimulating playing environment by providing various toys and materials
- Assist them in the activities to help them engage in more conversations and interactions between them
- Guide them on ways to play respectfully, such as ways to turn-taking and helping others
- Praise them when they engage in positive behaviors, such as “I am so proud of you for being willing to share” or “That is such great teamwork! Well done!”
Adopt a pet
Aside from interacting with peers, prosocial behaviors could also be developed through attachment to pets.
Read more: Ways To Build Healthy Attachment With Pets
An Australian longitudinal study illustrated that pet ownership is associated with better prosocial behavior as well as preventing socio-emotional problems. Thus, adopting a pet (or more) would be a great practice.
Be the role model
Teaching children about the importance of prosocial behavior and how it is done is not enough. So to raise a prosocial child, parents must walk the talk. In the process, children observe the expected behaviors in interactions and may be motivated to imitate the behaviors.
This is shown by Schuhmacher et al. (2018) in their series of experiments on 16-month-old children. They concluded that parental modeling takes a huge part in shaping the children’s helping behaviors. Thus, parents need to set an example for their children.
The thought that our tiny babies are going to be the future of this world may seem overwhelming at first. However, it is never too early to guide children to care about others’ welfare. You don’t have to expect them to eradicate poverty and injustice immediately. As prosocial behaviors exist in many shapes and forms, you should focus on things that are more attainable to get done. So, here’s to baby steps toward a better future!
If you would like to know more about developing prosocial behavior in children, check out the Parenting Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Parenting Science Labs today.
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