Parents, Peers, and Prosocial Behavior (page 2)
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).
Second, adult modeling of prosocial behavior seems to influence children’s altruism. On the whole, models who are perceived by children as competent, models who have long-term, nurturant relationships with children, and models who express happiness after prosocial behavior (rather than receiving tangible rewards for their behavior) tend to foster children’s prosocial behavior (see Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998).
Finally, providing children with opportunities for prosocial action seems to help encourage a commitment to altruistic action. Eisenberg and Fabes (1998) call this “the foot in the door effect.” For example, Eisenberg, Cialdini, McCreath, and Shell (1987) found that starting in middle childhood, children who are encouraged to donate in one context are more likely to engage in helping behavior later in another context. This was mostly true for children who valued being consistent. It may be that once children begin to form a stable self-concept, they are more likely to value consistency, and that practicing prosocial behavior then fosters further prosocial activities as children seek to maintain a coherent self-concept. But there are probably other benefits to practice in some contexts, such as gaining increased feelings of competence and obtaining social approval (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998).
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