Prosocial behavior, the ability for children to voluntarily act in a positive, accepting, helpful, and cooperative manner, has been associated with many factors of well-being. Prosocial behavior has been correlated with positive social interaction skills, positive self-concept, positive peer relationships, peer acceptance, as well as a lower risk of externalizing behaviors and lower levels of problem behaviors at school. These habits of the interpersonal are a keystone of development and predict academic and social success.
Social skills in early childhood are vital to the trajectory of interpersonal development and have been found to be stable over time. The development of prosocial behavior is complex as children have to balance their own needs and interests with the development of social bonds.
Some children are quite natural in the interpersonal process, while others need more guidance from relationships within the social environment. Within the context of day-to-day interactions parents can provide the challenge and support to facilitate the development of these key interpersonal skills.
Here are 9 ways for parents to promote prosocial behavior:
- Provide clear rules and expectations about behavior. These rules need to be based in the principles of development as they govern consequences of behavior. It is important to explain the reasons for social rules and to clarify “cause and effect” of children’s choices and actions.
- Say it like you mean it. The appropriate emotional level should accompany any expression of a rule or expectation. The nonverbal aspect of delivery is vital to the overall message for the effect says it matters. Children should sense our praise and approval of prosocial behavior in our tone and expression. Similarly we should be firm and direct when we are correcting or redirecting inappropriate behavior.
- Notice and label when the child engages in prosocial behavior. Short, simple phrases such as, “You were being helpful…” “You were kind to…” reinforce and send the message that actions matter. These reflections of behavior by authoritative adults help children internalize these attributes and the source of behavior. The same is true of antisocial behaviors, and when adults notice and label these behaviors, children are better able to understand and act in appropriate ways. Importantly, the process takes practice and consistency over time.
- Modeling. Walking your talk is a powerful teacher for children learn through what they see from caring adults. Imitation is a powerful form of learning and more influential than preaching. The voluntary nature of prosocial behavior requires a child to have consistent models and experiences to learn and internalize the importance and benefits of these actions. Your child watches you constantly and the relationship offers many opportunities to “show” children how to act and make choices.
- Responsive and empathic care. Children are much more likely to give what they have received in their most important relationships. Research has pointed to the connection between a secure parent-child attachment and prosocial behavior as well as empathy in early childhood.
- Respect for nature. Modeling and teaching care and respect for the environment and its inhabitants offers a powerful message. Picking up litter, tending a garden, being respectful to animals and their habitats are just a few of the many ways nature can teach the value of caring, gratitude, and connection.
- Read books about friendship and relationships. Early on, picture books can provide powerful narratives of the importance and benefits of prosocial behavior.
- Tasks and chores. Defining and assigning concrete tasks that make up the business-as-usual parts of the day creates a sense of connection. Age-appropriate tasks and chores are a great way for children to be and feel helpful.
- Avoid programs and content endorsing violent or anti-social behavior. Regardless of the format, content that is age-appropriate and created within standard rating guidelines offer choices that are more developmentally suitable for young children. With screens ever-present in the environment, consider choosing programs with prosocial themes of friendship, exploration, problem-solving, and cooperation.
Bronson, M. (2000). Self-regulation in early childhood: Nature and nurture. Guilford Press.
Bower, A. A., & Casas, J. F. (2016). What parents do when children are good: parent reports of strategies for reinforcing early childhood prosocial behaviors. Journal of child and family studies, 25(4), 1310-1324.
Flouri, E., & Sarmadi, Z. (2016). Prosocial behavior and childhood trajectories of internalizing and externalizing problems: The role of neighborhood and school contexts. Developmental Psychology, 52(2), 253-258.
Honig, A. S., & Wittmer, D. S. (1991). Helping Children Become More Prosocial: Tips for Teachers.
Hyson, M., & Taylor, J. L. (2011). Caring about Caring: What Adults Can Do to Promote Young Children’s Prosocial Skills. Young Children, 75.