Prosocial Behavior in a Child

Prosocial behavior is behavior that is initiated to benefit another person. Purdue University defines prosocial behavior as helping others in the form of donating time, effort or money, helping in an emergency or non-emergency, or cooperating instead of competing 5. Helping behaviors are prosocial and things we do out of empathy for another are prosocial. The most prosocial behaviors are seen as altruistic: behaviors that only benefit somebody else. For example, when a person makes an anonymous donation for which he will get nothing in return. Children show signs of prosocial behavior early in life.


Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied prosocial behavior in children ages 18 and 30 months of age 25. They state that prosocial behavior in children has been documented as early as 1 year of age. In their study, they looked at helping behavior, empathy, and altruism 1. Children at 18 and 30 months of age were found to be willing to help their caregivers by performing tasks. For example, "please put your toys away" is a task children who are finished playing can help with. Empathic helping was more difficult for toddlers at 18 months than for 30-month olds, but when caregivers communicated their emotions and needs to the 18-month olds, they were willing to help. For example, "Mommy has a headache, please play quietly." Altruism proved more difficult for children at both ages. For example, they did not want to give up a toy or possession in order to help.


A 2007 British study published in Evolution and Human Behavior looked at children ages 4, 6, and 9 years of age 1. They played a game designed to measure altruistic behavior 1. The results indicated that by age 4, children naturally exhibit altruistic, prosocial behaviors, including donating resources for the benefit of anonymous recipients. As children get older, their natural tendency to share in prosocial ways seems to depend upon their own personal resources and socio-economic status 3. In the British study, children at ages 6 and 9 who came from higher SES backgrounds continued to behave in an altruistic manner, but children from lower SES backgrounds were less willing to donate resources in the game 1. The 9-year-olds from lower SES backgrounds donated the least in the game.

Parental Influence

Parents may encourage prosocial behavior in children by acknowledging and praising the behavior, by behaving in a prosocial manner themselves, and by discussing prosocial behavior with their children 3. Experts in learning disabled children have written extensively on teaching children prosocial behavior; for example, in "Teaching Parents to Teach Their Children to be Prosocial" they advise parents to seize the opportunity to discuss behavior when it occurs 3. For example, discuss a social interaction with a child right afterward. Do this for both positive and negative experiences. "I see you chose to stop running and help your friend. How did that feel?" and "You screamed at the other kids and ran inside. What happened?"

Nature / Nurture

Psychologist Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has studied communication and behavior in both human children and apes 1. His findings indicate that children are naturally helpful and cooperative, and as they grow, their outlook and behavior is modeled by their surroundings. Children base their behavior on the social values of their society; for example, neither a child nor an adult is likely to simply walk away from an interaction in the middle with no warning. Apes, on the other hand, demonstrate the ability to share and cooperate, but often choose not to. They do not seem to have the same sense of community or social responsibility that Tomasello believes is innate in humans. That natural sense of community is one reason Tomasello believes that we see prosocial behavior so early in human children.