Even after years of research experience with young children, I was still amazed by toddlers’ helping behavior elicited by the host Alan Alda in “the Human Spark series” on PBS. The researchers from the Max Planck Institute recently found that 1-year-olds could already help an experimenter retrieve an out-of-reach object he had accidentally dropped on the floor, or open cabinet doors when the experimenter was unable to open them himself.
Imagine that your child helps you water flowers or wipe up your spilled coffee one day. You are probably thrilled for having such a considerate and caring child. However, a “skeptical” psychologist may pursue further and ask: Does your child really do so out of caring concern for your needs? Or is it only because they enjoy the action itself, and possibly the reward that usually follows? How much does your child really understand about your intentions or feelings when they help? Is your child willing to help you altruistically, that is, to help by giving up something of value voluntarily?
Dr. Celia Brownell and her team at the University of Pittsburgh also aimed to figure out whether young children, who have long been believed to be ego-centric, can genuinely offer help to others. The researchers measured young children’s different types of helping behaviors: (1) instrumental helping, which involves helping someone to complete an interrupted action, (2) empathic helping, which bases on inferring and alleviating another’s negative internal state, and (3) altruistic helping, which means helping others at one’s own cost. The findings suggested that children typically show instrumental helping behavior by 1.5 years of age. Then the children start to display empathic helping. Children still have difficulty to help others by giving up an object of their own even by 2.5 years old.
To measure how spontaneously the child would offer help, the experimenter made her need and how to help progressively more explicit with a fixed sequence of specific gestural, vocal, and verbal cues. Here are some samples of the experimenter’s expressed cues of need for a blanket to wrap:
Step 1: Shiver with cold, rubbing and hugging oneself to get warm, ‘‘brrrr’’
Step 2: Say “I am cold”
Step 3: Say “I need something to make me feel warm”
Step 4: Say “The blanket!”
Step 5: Alternate gaze between the blanket and the child
Step 6: Reach and gesture toward the blanket
Step 7: Say “Can you help me?”
Step 8: Say “Can you bring me the blanket?”
1.5-year-olds are most able to help in obvious, goal-oriented helping situation when they are supported by clear communications about what the other person needs and what can be done to help. By 2.5 years, children become better at recognizing another’s need for help from relatively subtle cue.
So if you are curious to know about whether your child is genuinely helpful, you may want to try this easy experiment at home and provide some need-for-help signals (from more subtle to more explicit) to your child.
Svetlova M, Nichols SR, & Brownell CA (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: from instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child development, 81 (6), 1814-27 PMID: 21077866
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees Science, 311 (5765), 1301-1303 DOI: 10.1126/science.1121448
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age Infancy, 11 (3), 271-294 DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7078.2007.tb00227.x