Nurtured by Nature: Promoting Prosocial Behavior
We all assume the role of parent with many hopes and goals. Among a range of desired outcomes most of us prioritize for our children are: feeling loved, being safe and healthy, experiencing joy and happiness, and getting along with others. All of these goals deserve a deep discussion, but for now, I will focus on the last on that list.
Developmental scientists refer to skills translating into success in social relationships as “prosocial” behavior. This set of behaviors includes more than just being polite, and saying please and thank you, or sharing your toys. Two of the developmental scientists who did a great deal of ground-breaking work on this topic defined prosocial behavior as, “actions that are intended to aid or benefit another person or group of people without the actor’s anticipation of external rewards” (Mussen and Eisenberg, 1977, 3). Note the emphasis on the lack of external rewards, or being kind for its own sake.
Childhood aggression, or controlling it, gets the greatest share of attention in advice for parents. There is a good reason for this as aggressive acts, even by the youngest of children, can result in serious harm. More children end up in emergency rooms because of sibling aggression than for any other reason. So we know that children regularly (and enthusiastically), kick, bite, scratch, and hit.
Although not written about as frequently, observations of children reveal many acts of helping, sharing, and consoling others. Interactions with siblings and peers in pretend play may be especially important as contexts for learning these prosocial behaviors. During play, children negotiate roles, and practice caregiving, perspective taking, problem-solving, and cooperating.
When children are described as prosocial, research informs us that they also are more likely to be popular with their peers and better adjusted overall (Rubin et al., 2006). Thus most parents’ intuitive goal of instilling not just manners, but empathy, compassion, and helpfulness, makes sense given the benefits.
But where do prosocial behaviors come from? Well, the answer to this question is complicated, but complicated is what keeps us Developmental scientists interested in seeking answers. The short answer, but not perhaps satisfying, is: The development of prosocial behavior is influenced by many, many factors operating throughout childhood. Included on that list would be the individual characteristics of the child (for example, being timid or easily overwhelmed), family environments, peers, neighborhoods, and even messages in media.
I believe another powerful factor may be overlooked as encouraging and inciting acts of prosocial behavior. Consider the role of Nature. If young children develop prosocial behaviors toward other people, why not also toward plants and animals? If handed a kitten or puppy, most children are gentle in how they handle a young animal. They will take its perspective, wondering aloud if it is hungry, hurt, or misses its mother. Often parents will note that these behaviors appear without their prompting. Regardless of where they come from, it is helpful to have conversations with children about caring for animals, plants, and planet Earth as a means of building on existing inclinations and extending prosocial behaviors.
Playing in and investigating nature promotes imaginations and creativity. As we try to demonstrate in this blog, nature-based inquiry inspires multisensory observation skills and critical thinking about diverse life forms. We hope these activities will also serve as a catalyst for developing respect, concern and caring for living things, including other people, animals, and plants.
So head outside and take a walk. Make sure that you can be present with your child and are not distracted. You need to be there to connect. While we’re at it, if you want an empathetic child, be sure you model that behavior. Listen to him, take his perspective, and acknowledge his ideas and emotions.
Direct experience with nature stimulates curiosity and questions. The ensuing conversations help children make sense of their environments and can draw attention to the needs and perspectives of other living things. Learning to be gracious, generous and kind is a lifelong endeavor, but a step outside and into nature may be the first of many on this long journey.
Mussen, P., & Eisenberg-Berg, N. (1977). Roots of caring, sharing, and helping: The development of prosocial behavior in children. San Francisco, W.H. Freeman.
Rubin, K., Bukowski, W., & Parker, J. (2006). Peer interactions, relationships, and groups. Handbook of child psychology, volume 3 (6th edition.) New York: Wiley.