Recent research has show that we are naturally born with very strong altruistic tendencies. These feelings can be nurtured in young children to help them develop their sense of empathy towards others and the world around them.
Felix Warneken, a doctoral student in the department of developmental and comparative psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany says “that selfish and altruistic motives are there from the beginning in competition with each other, but we can build upon those altruistic, pro-social tendencies.”
Here are some tips on how to help kids care, at home and at school.
- Give children opportunities to help out around the home. This can begin as early as 18 months old. Without actually asking for help, create little situations where their help is required.
- Drop something that they are able to pick up on the floor and wait for them to retrieve it for you. Give praise as they do so.
- Make a fuss about trying to find something that is within their sight and let them find it and give it to you.
Model helpfulness to your children and develop a sharing relationship with them early on.
- Get them to think about how their actions affect others around them; this can include the environment, their pets, their friends and their family.
Get kids working together – Professor Elliot Aronson from the University of California-Santa Cruz has developed a concept called the “jigsaw classroom”. It was designed to promote cooperation rather than competition between children. Students work together in racially and ethnically diverse groups where each student tackles one piece of the assignment. Without the contribution of each student’s “puzzle piece,” the group can’t succeed. By putting themselves into other’s shoes, children are able to cooperate with each other and work together to complete a whole assignment. This helps develop empathy rather than prejudices between children.
Professor Elliot Aronson said “You can declare National Brotherhood Week or just tell kids to be empathic, but it’s much better if they convince themselves to do it. Letting children work together and realize that they have to listen to other kids and communicate with them effectively to do well on an exam builds empathy from the inside out rather than the outside in.”
Jigsaw in 10 Easy Steps
The jigsaw classroom is very simple to use. If you’re a teacher, just follow these steps:
1. Divide students into 5- or 6-person jigsaw groups. The groups should be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and ability.
2. Appoint one student from each group as the leader. Initially, this person should be the most mature student in the group.
3. Divide the day’s lesson into 5-6 segments.
4. Split the assignment into sections and give a section to each student, making sure students have direct access only to their own section.
5. Give students time to read over their section at least twice and become familiar with it. There is no need for them to memorize it.
6. Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same section. Give students in these expert groups time to discuss the main points of their section and to rehearse the presentations they will make to their jigsaw group.
7. Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.
8. Ask each student to present her or his section to the group. Encourage others in the group to ask questions for clarification.
9. Float from group to group, observing the process. If any group is having trouble (eg, a member is dominating or disruptive), make an appropriate intervention. Eventually, it’s best for the group leader to handle this task. Leaders can be trained by whispering an instruction on how to intervene, until the leader gets the hang of it.
10. At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material so that students quickly come to realize that these sessions are not just fun and games but really count.*
It is good to encourage children to participate in the community and to help others, but it is important that the child is taking part for the right reasons. If they are motivated by a genuine feeling of wanting to help then altruistic tendencies will grow and develop into adulthood.
However if their motive is so that it makes them look good, or it gives them more standing, then nothing internal has been learned or developed. It is nurturing the internal qualities of ‘acting for the good of others’ that needs to be developed rather than the act itself.
This development comes about when children are encouraged to reflect upon the impact of their actions and how they contribute in a positive way to the community and society they live in.
Altruistic children do grow up to be altruistic adults, confirms Nancy Eisenberg, PhD, Regent’s Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Arizona State University. Her study Child Development, found that altruistic behaviour in early childhood predicted altruistic behaviour in adulthood. She called this self motivation to help others without being asked to the “other-oriented moral reasoning”.
Eisenberg concluded that “Kids who were higher in these behaviours were pro-social all the way into their 20s.”
*The Jigsaw classroom