Prosocial behavior may come naturally to some. Even children as young as 2 or 3 may spontaneously share a treat or toy with an unhappy playmate. But most children likely need to learn it from the same people who teach them to say “please” and “thank you,” and the earlier in life that happens, the better.
For starters, prosocial behavior requires compassion and empathy, the ability to recognize and care about the needs and well-being of others. But compassion without constructive follow-up benefits no one. Step two is kindness, a.k.a., compassion in action. You may be distressed to see an elderly person struggling with heavy packages, but unless you offer to help or at least express a wish to help but explain why you can’t, your compassion goes to waste.
One of my proudest moments as a grandmother was learning that a grandson, then in first grade, comforted a classmate who’d become motion sick on a school bus trip. While other children on the bus moved away in disgust, my grandson put his arm on the ill child and asked if he felt better.
As my four grandchildren continued to grow, I realized that all of them had too much “stuff” and I’d been remiss by adding to the pile with my holiday gifts of toys and clothes. Henceforth, I told them, I would give them money to donate to any nonprofit group they choose that works to better the lives of others or the world. One boy picked a tutoring program for needy children; one chose an afterschool sports program; another with deep interest in the environment sent his gift to the American Forests; and the youngest, age 10, gave to a local food bank.
Dr. Baxley recounts similar episodes in “Social Justice Parenting.” She tells of a son’s excitement at finding a $20 bill, then soon after giving it to an immigrant family holding a sign that read “Can you please help us with our rent?”
Too often, Dr. Baxley said, parents place a higher value on getting good grades or winning at sports than on helping people who need it. She said it’s also important to foster a child’s emotional well-being by accepting and nurturing the child you have, not trying to forcefully create the one you want. A child who lacks athletic ability and spurns sports should not be made to participate in one because the parent values it and it could help the child get into college, she said.
As a parent of biracial children and an educator, Dr. Baxley recognizes the challenges parents face when dealing with sensitive issues like race, disability, gender nonconformity and homelessness. But she urges parents not to let fear stand in the way of productive conversations. She maintains that even the most difficult topics, like racism, bullying, sexism and death, can be discussed sensitively and sincerely in terms that are age appropriate.