It ought to be easier to raise pro-social children — kids who are helpful and kind and empathic — since the impulse toward pro-social behavior is something we’re born with. Yet so many youngsters seem to miss the mark. Two aspects of how we raise our children may be getting in the way.
First, competition permeates our society and our children's lives — not only on the athletic field, but in the classroom, in after-school activities and at home among siblings. We ask, "How was the test?" and they sense we’re wondering how they compare to their classmates. We shout from the sidelines at their soccer games, urging them to play hard, to win. "If children have been trained to see other people as potential rivals, obstacles to their own success," according to well-known educator Alfie Kohn, "they're less disposed to care about anyone's well-being other than their own."1 Too much emphasis on competition teaches youth to envy winners and dismiss losers as somehow unworthy — undeserving of empathy or caring.
Second, we live in a culture of dangling carrots tempting us to reach for the bigger home, the fancier vacation, the newer car. Similarly, we dangle carrots in front of our children, incentivizing them on the front end to engage in pro-social behavior — "If I see you sharing your toys, I'll give you an extra treat this afternoon" — or offering rewards or praise on the back end. But research has shown that reinforcing pro-social behavior leads children to think of acts of kindness not as something intrinsically worth doing but as a way of gaining our approval and achieving a reward. Studies have shown how children of parents who dangle carrots — who routinely use material incentives — tend to lose interest in the behavior and focus instead on the prize.2 This seems particularly true when a child is naturally inclined toward the desired behavior in the first place.
Are children by nature inclined toward helpfulness and caring? Infant and toddler studies answer that question with a resounding yes. Babies cry empathically at the sound of other babies in distress; at 16 months they're drawn to animated characters who help rather than characters who obstruct. Both the emphasis on competition and the dangling of rewards seem to dampen the pro-social impulse that naturally seeks expression from the earliest years of life.
2 Fabes RA, Fulse J, Eisenberg N, et al. 1989. "Effects of rewards on children's prosocial motivation: A socialization study." Developmental Psychology 25: 509-515.