“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” Thumper told Bambi in the classic Disney film Bambi. Thumper’s lesson to be kind to one another is an important message for all of us, but especially young children. Not only is it the nice thing to do, but research shows that being helpful and socially competent in kindergarten is related to a plethora of positive outcomes in young adulthood, such as success in school, work, and mental health.
While most kids are naturally helpful, social influences and interactions with adults greatly shape the development of helping behaviors in toddlers and preschoolers. For example, in a series of studies by Stanford University, an adult experimenter and child spent time engaged in play that was either reciprocal (passing a ball back and forth) or parallel (playing next to one another but not with one another). The child was then given the opportunity to be kind to the adult (retrieve an object or share stickers). The researchers found that children who played reciprocally with the adult were more helpful and generous than children who played in parallel next to the adult.
In addition to reciprocal play, language also influences a toddler’s helpful or prosocial behavior. In a University of Pittsburgh study, researchers found that toddlers showed more regular helping behaviors when parents used more emotional language (like “thinks,” “wants,” and “happy”) during play and reading time.
Social interactions with your little one and with others around you greatly impacts the way your toddler approaches helping and sharing with others. Here are three simple ways that you can work to improve the likelihood of helping behaviors in your child.
Encourage your child to participate in games and activities that involve collaboration, turn-taking, and reciprocal play. “Research tells us that altruistic behavior is strongly influenced by social interactions, and playing games that encourage children to work together provide fun opportunities for promoting prosocial attitudes and behaviors,” says Helen Hadani, Head of Research at the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. (You can find free collaborative activities for kids on Creativity Catapult including One Word Stories and Down, Down, Down.)
After your child watches a show or reads a book, talk about what the character(s) were thinking and feeling and why. “Discussing mental states in relation to media content beneficially provides children with an opportunity to learn about connections between experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” says Hadani, an expert on creative thinking and child development. Children understand more about their and others’ emotions when their everyday interactions are emotionally rich.
Find opportunities for children to help with tasks and chores around the house or at school. Hadani explains, “Many children are eager to ‘help’ fold laundry, bake cookies, or wash dishes, and although these genuine efforts to help are often not the most efficient way to complete a task, research suggests that this parent-child interaction may contribute to the development of early helping.” So when your child asks, let them pitch in and be your little helper.