I’m sure your tiny tot has one: a book they want to read 10 times a day, even after you’ve both memorized it. My 15-month-old son loves The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. This book portrays a disgruntled ladybug with an inferiority complex who feels the need to pick on other animals to the point of exhaustion. At the end of the day, he is hungry and tired, and has missed out on sharing the bulk of yummy treats with his foil, the friendly ladybug.
Moral of the story? Ladybugs (and little kids!) who engage in friendly, “prosocial” behaviors are more likely to experience fruitful lives.
As it turns out, research confirms this idea. Despite the notion that intelligence drives success, prosocial behaviors may be just as important as smarts! But what are some examples of “prosocial” behaviors?
- Cooperating with peers without being prompted
- Helping others in need
- Attempting to understand the feelings of others
- Resolving conflicts without intervention
Recent research indicates that when kindergartners play nice, they are more likely to have successful educational and employment outcomes, such as graduating from high school, completing college, and even maintaining full-time employment! These children are also less likely to need public assistance or have a criminal record later in life. Among a plethora of other outcomes, these behaviors even predict less alcohol and marijuana use in young adulthood.
Lucky for us mamas, research shows that it is definitely possible to elicit these behaviors from our children given the right teaching environment. Most interventions to promote prosocial behaviors begin between 5 and 18 years of age, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start teaching your little one about the importance of playing nice long before they are off to school.
So, how can you put your child on the path to kindness (and success)? We have 8 steps to help you get started:
1. Sharing is caring. Even if it is too early to expect your little one to share their belongings with peers, you can set a good example by modeling sharing behaviors yourself. So, the next time you share a bite of your favorite boutique cupcake with your tot, feel free to point out your generosity. Mommy loves sharing her treat with you because she knows it makes you happy! Sharing is fun because it makes both of us feel good! Just remember, when it comes to sharing, you can’t expect your child to do anything you wouldn’t. Their belongings are precious to them, just like your belongings are precious to you. You wouldn’t be thrilled about sharing your favorite Kate Spade tote with your flaky BFF, so you shouldn’t expect child to offer up their favorite lovey to their drooly playmate. Forcing baby to share their prized possessions when they are not willing can devalue baby’s self-worth by demonstrating that other children’s desires are more important. So encourage sharing, but don’t force it!
2. Snaps for baby. As often as you can, call attention to your tot’s generous behaviors.
If your little one does something nice for a friend, let baby know how that behavior will positively affect their friend’s emotional state. Wow! That is so nice of you to let little Aidan read your favorite book. I am sure sharing your book made him very happy. In addition to praising good behavior, this technique offers a chance for your child to engage in perspective taking, which can help them to relate to other children more effectively.
3. Walk—or crawl—in another tot’s shoes. Try to help little one understand peers’ feelings by asking them how they might feel if they were in their friend’s shoes.
For instance, if you see a peer being excluded from the play group, ask your child how they would feel if they were the one left out. If it wouldn’t feel good, it probably isn’t very nice to make someone else feel that way either. Typically, even the basic ability to take another person’s perspective doesn’t develop until at least 24 months, but you are the best judge of when your child will respond meaningfully to this type of conversation.
4. Bring on those warm and fuzzy feelings. Rewarding positive social behaviors is an effective way to show your tot how important it is to cooperate and help out in their peer group. Rewards for good behavior, such as a trip to the playground or a new box of crayons, are more effective than punishment for a lack of good behavior.
When a good behavior is rewarded, it is a clear message to your child to engage in that behavior again in the future. In contrast, when a less-than-stellar behavior is punished, it doesn’t give your child any idea of what to do instead the next time they are faced with a similar situation. The key to effectively rewarding behavior is to walk the fine line between providing extrinsic motivation while not hampering intrinsic motivation. If your child seems to truly enjoy sharing toys with buddies, this behavior does not need any rewarding, as a reward may actually undermine their intrinsic love of sharing. (If you were offered a treat every time you shared your Diet Coke stash with a co-worker, would you continue doing it for free? Me either.)
5. Flex those self-control muscles. Most babies are given plenty of opportunities to practice self-regulation every day. For example, children engage in self-regulation when they squeeze their snack pouch slowly to avoid a goopy mess all over their face.
Having your tot practice these self-regulation skills is a great way to teach your little one to inhibit their impulsive behaviors (like pilfering a peer’s new toy). This kind of practice can also teach your child how to engage in goal-directed activity. If I listen to Mama when she asks me to wait and hold her hand before running down the sidewalk, she will grant me the independence I so desperately crave. Okay, so maybe baby’s thought process isn’t quite that sophisticated, but you get the idea! Self-regulation is just like any other muscle. The best way to bulk up is to use it! If you want your child to get in a few extra “reps,” try playing games like “Simon Says” or “Red Light, Green Light”. Another famous self-regulation activity is to offer your little one a small treat (historically, a marshmallow) and tell them that if they can wait 15 minutes to eat it, they can have two instead of one. Having your little one delay instant gratification for a greater long-term reward is a fun way to show your child the value of working hard for what they want in life.
6. Practice conflict resolution. The ability to diffuse interpersonal conflicts will be invaluable to your child now and in adulthood. If you want your child to gain experience with resolving conflicts, try demonstrations using puppet characters, or invest in a few storybooks that focus on friends who “work out” their differences.
If your child is old enough, organize a cooperative project or game that can only be completed by engaging in teamwork with peers. One easy activity is to have a small group of children work on coloring a large mural (and by mural, I mean the back of a sheet of wrapping paper you snagged from the clearance bin after last Christmas…*wink*) With this activity, children can learn to work side-by-side, communicate about what spaces still need to be colored, share materials, and teach coloring techniques to peers who need a few pointers.
7. Give your child the opportunity to give back. Nothing feels better than donating some of your precious time to a worthy cause. Whether it is a community bake sale, food drive, or story time at your local retirement home, your child may be able to give back to the community, too!
Finding opportunities for your child to contribute to the world can give them a sense of satisfaction, belongingness, self-worth, and citizenship. Plus, that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from doing something altruistic can promote intrinsic motivation to give back in the future. When a child gives back to the community, they begin to see themselves as a part of the community, decreasing their likelihood of engaging in negative behaviors toward other community members.
8. Let your actions speak louder. The most effective way to promote positive social behaviors is to engage in these behaviors with your child at home. By providing a warm and supportive environment for your child, you are giving them the good example they need to be warm and supportive with others. If you do not want your child to display punitive, coercive, or verbally aggressive social behaviors, your best bet is to try embracing polar opposite parenting strategies at home. When your tot decides to flush your (hopefully backed-up) iPhone, try your darndest to keep your cool. Instead of yelling, guilting, or spanking, try a brief time-out (one minute per year of age) and explaining to your child why your phone is so important to you and why you are upset.
It may seem daunting to teach your child these values. (Heck, some days just dressing and feeding my kid is daunting!) Just remember that you have many years to instill these principles into your child’s heart and mind. If you attempt to incorporate little chances to teach, model, practice, and apply these ideas on an everyday basis, your tot will have the best chance of adopting them in childhood and carrying them into adulthood. The positive outcomes of these prosocial behaviors will be evident in every aspect of your child’s life, and there is nothing sweeter than thinking your child might actually pass on some of this wisdom when the student becomes the teacher.