Parents, Peers, and Prosocial Behavior
We began an examination of parenting behaviors and of the development of self-control, compliance, prosocial behavior, and conscience in infants and preschoolers. We observed that these aspects of moral development are, on the whole, most effectively launched when parents are authoritative in their style: on one hand, warm, responsive, and sensitive in their caregiving and, on the other hand, demanding, requiring that children live up to standards and values appropriate to their level of maturity (see Baumrind, 1989, 1993; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). The methods of control that seem to foster internalization of those standards and values in the long run involve mild power assertion, sufficient only to capture the child’s attention but not to arouse a lot of anxiety, and induction (explaining why it is important to share, for example). It should be noted that parents who are demanding without warmth and sensitivity (the authoritarian style) may actually interfere with prosocial development. At least for toddlers, this parenting style has been associated with reductions in children’s empathic responding (Robinson, Zahn-Waxler, & Emde, 1994). Extremes of negative parenting, resulting in child abuse, seem to suppress prosocial responding to others’ distress and promote more negative responding, such as aggression (e.g., Main & George, 1985).
In middle childhood, the same conclusions about what elements of parenting are most effective in promoting prosocial behavior (and inhibiting antisocial behavior) still apply. There are also a number of other specific characteristics of parenting that seem to foster children’s altruism. First, when parents have strong prosocial values, their elementary-school-aged children are more likely to be seen by peers as prosocial (Hoffman, 1975). Similarly, adults who show unusual prosocial tendencies, such as “rescuers” of Nazi victims in Europe during World War II, frequently report having had parents who strongly valued caring and helping behaviors (Oliner & Oliner, 1988).
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