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Montefiore in the News

February 14, 2020

By Kristina Cappetta

Getting kids to share isn’t always easy, but a new study suggests babies may show altruistic qualities early in life. Researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington studied nearly 100 19-month-old babies. The babies had a delicious snack in front of them, but instead of eating it, they gave it to the adults next to them. Researchers believe this indicates babies can show altruistic behavior at this stage of their life.

Psychologist Christina Fiorvanti, Ph.D., at Montefiore Health System in New York, agrees. “Altruistic helping behavior is likely one way that babies interact with others and watch to see the impact of their actions,” Fiorvanti tells Parentology. “When adults respond in positive ways to what an infant or toddler does, children are much more likely to repeat the behavior.”

Fiorvanti says babies learn through engaging with their environments and watching those around them.

Studying Altruistic Behavior in Babies As part of the study, researchers put babies into two groups. The control group had a piece of fruit placed on a tray. The babies could reach it, but the adults couldn’t. Babies in the control group were with researchers who did nothing else with the food.  For the babies in the test group, researchers appeared to accidentally toss the piece of fruit and pretended they couldn’t reach it. More than half the babies in the test group saw the adults struggle, picked up the fruit and handed it to them.Researchers repeated the test with another group of babies at mealtime, thinking it would affect how generous they were if they were hungry. While babies in the control kept the fruit for themselves, 37% of those in the test group still gave the fruit to the adults.

Does Environment Play a Role in a Baby’s Altruistic Behavior?

Researchers also discovered that children with siblings and those from certain cultural backgrounds were especially likely to help an adult.

Fiorvanti tells Parentology, “Parents tend to be selfless when it comes to their children and may not expect young children to share with them, whereas expecting a child to share with a sibling is much more likely.”

The environment that surrounds children can also impact their behavior greatly. Fiorvanti says families and homes where everyone is kind to one another through their actions are most likely to encourage the same traits in their children. Culture can also play an important role in teaching children what behaviors are important.

“Children raised in societies where an emphasis is placed on how everyone supports one another and helps the community as a whole would be expected to display more altruistic behaviors themselves,” Fiorvanti says.

Since babies tend to learn a lot from social interactions, seeing their parents display generous behavior can have a greater impact than parents just telling their kids to be nice.

Promoting Altruism in Kids There are myriad opportunities where parents can promote altruism in kids, many of which involve paying attention to someone else’s feelings. Fiorvanti says parents can talk about other’s feelings with their children as well as their own feelings.

“When a child starts to notice that another person is sad…and connect that to their own feelings of sadness, they can begin to act in an altruistic way to do something to help make that person feel better,” Fiorvanti says. As kids get older, there are more opportunities to promote altruism. These include exposing them to people in need, modeling kindness, and remaining positive. By exposing your kids to people in need they can see others’ struggles first-hand. This can include a volunteer trip to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. 

By being a positive role model, your kids can see how kindness always counts and wins, no matter what age they are.  Christina Fiorvanti, Ph.D., psychologist at Montefiore Health System