What makes the difference between kids who are at risk for lifelong mental-health and behavioral problems and those who seem able to deal with whatever life throws at them as they mature? Experts tell us it’s a matter of gaining certain skills or “competencies” in childhood that serve our well-being for the rest of our lives: decision-making skills, self-control, a healthy self-view, a moral system of belief—and something called “prosocial connectedness.”
This last attribute may not be quite as intuitive as the others. It’s easy to see why decision-making skills or self-control would make a difference in lifelong success, and we all know social connections have their place. But aren’t they just the icing on the cake? After all, everybody knows that politics and economics belong on the front pages of the news, and social columns belong in the back. What makes this topic worthy of inclusion among the handful of essentials for life?
In short, social connections are important because they are fundamental to humanity’s entire political, social and economic structure. Just as a healthy brain is made up of neurons that communicate and become linked to form a complex, efficient system, so a healthy society is made up of individual “brains” that communicate with many others, becoming linked in complex social systems.
This is not to say that all social connections are equal. Manipulative and self-serving people may learn enough positive behaviors to connect with others on a superficial social level, yet still destroy the mental health and well-being of everyone around them, contributing to serious malfunctions in humanity’s neural network. We call these people “antisocial” or, when they exhibit these behaviors in the extreme, psychopathic or sociopathic—somewhat interchangeable labels for people who demonstrate little or no empathy for others. Researchers study these groups to find out how to combat the societal problems they spawn.
But is it confirmation of the human tendency to focus on the negative that as a society we are more familiar with the term antisocial than with its opposite? How often do we even hear the word prosocial, much less wonder about its definition?
Not to be confused with the term asocial (which refers to the avoidance of interaction), antisocial pertains to conduct that is actively hostile to society. Prosocial, on the other hand, describes behaviors that display active concern for others: empathy, selflessness, friendliness, inclusiveness. It encompasses such actions as defending the weak or ending conflict through peacemaking gestures—in short, the kinds of behaviors described by the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
Prosocial connections would be the kind most parents want their children to form, and with good reason. Kids with these kinds of connections have better outcomes in almost every area of life. They take fewer risks and have fewer mental health challenges because they are more resilient. They also have higher levels of other important skills. They stay in school longer and perform more successfully there. They even live longer and contribute more to society while doing so.
While there’s no magic number of prosocial connections required to bring about these benefits, children do need the unique experiences provided by a variety of ties that include both adults and peers. Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers and other adults give children practice with authority relationships. Peer connections, which might include siblings, cousins, classmates and other friends across a variety of age groups, provide the opportunity to practice “horizontal” interactions based on a relatively equal standing.
Naturally it takes a certain degree of social savvy to establish and maintain these important ties. Where does it come from? How can we, as parents, make sure our child is helping, caring and inclusive—securely and proactively embedded within a healthy social network?
The task ideally begins at birth (and possibly even earlier).
Connecting the Dots
Like almost every other important life skill, the ability to establish prosocial connections rests on self-regulatory processes. Particularly important to the development of prosocial skills are two basic ingredients: children’s resources for regulating their own distress and negative emotions, which they begin to build from birth, and the later-developing ability to accurately sense the emotions of others and respond to them appropriately, a skill that is fundamental to finding common ground and resolving conflict in relationships. Teaching children prosocial skills, then, involves much more than teaching a list of logical dos and don’ts having to do with behaviors. It involves training the brain’s emotional processes long before the logical processes are even engaged, which means the first job of parents is to connect emotionally to their children.
Parents who are attuned to their children have become adept at reading their emotional state, understanding their cues, feeling with them and responding with concern. Throughout the first years of life, it is this attunement on the part of their most important caregivers that shapes children’s lifelong style of forming and maintaining relationships—their “attachment style.” Attachment describes much more than simply a bond based on affection. An attachment bond is one in which an individual is looking for security and comfort from the relationship with the attachment figure. An attachment, explains University of Maryland psychologist Jude Cassidy, “is considered ‘secure’ if one achieves security and ‘insecure’ if one does not; it is the seeking of security that is the defining feature.”
Children without secure attachment grow up with less psychological resilience than their peers, and they are handicapped in the ability to effectively regulate their own emotions or accurately attune to the emotions of others. As a result, they are also more vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression.
Certainly there is a genetic component as well, but genes are not necessarily destiny. We now know that a child’s social environment also plays a very important role in determining whether genetic potentials materialize. Many genes identified as instrumental in prosocial behavior are activated by different environmental factors and at different developmental periods, beginning with birth.
All of this can be boiled down to an important takeaway concept: children do not develop the ability to regulate their own distress—or learn to care about the distress of others—unless they have first experienced care from attuned attachment figures who were responsive to their emotional cues, soothed their distress and provided a secure base for their explorations.
Raising a Social Pro
“The child’s need for protection and care is present at the very beginning of life,” note researchers Joan E. Grusec and Amanda Sherman, “and how caregivers respond to that need plays a large role in the development of empathy and prosocial behavior.” Grusec and another colleague, Maayan Davidov, offer a useful way to understand a parent’s role in responding to these needs through five spheres of influence that work together at every stage of childhood as prosocial skills are honed.
The first is to provide protection: when children’s distress is alleviated by concerned protectors, their own capacity for empathy and outgoing concern is reinforced. Although especially important to establishing attachment bonds in infancy, it remains important through middle childhood and adolescence. According to Grusec and Sherman, the children of parents who understand how best to comfort them will develop better coping skills, and their teachers report them as being more prosocial than their peers. Teens who turn to parents for emotional support with personal problems, and who receive aid in response, demonstrate specific moral values that are important to prosocial behavior; for instance, fairness, honesty and kindness.
A second area, reciprocity, refers to mutual positive exchanges. Playful interaction between parents and their infants is one example of this influence. As children grow, they should learn that their parents enjoy spending time with them, and that they gain pleasure from complying with a child’s reasonable requests. Children will emulate this behavior with their parents and others, responding with concern and pleasure to their reasonable requests.
The ring of reciprocal influence widens as children grow and experience a greater number of contexts that involve giving and receiving mutual support, such as in sports activities and group projects in school. In all of these environments, expressions of gratitude, acceptance and support work as powerful reinforcements of prosocial behavior. Children and adolescents in environments where gratitude and support are expressed feel greater confidence in their prosocial ability and take more responsibility for regulating their emotions and empathizing with others.
A third area of influence involves appropriate parental control, exercised in a way that allows enough autonomy for the child to make the association between personal choices and consequences. When parental control is used simply to impose external values, it may generate a temporary, useful habit, but it will collapse easily under pressure. On the other hand, the biblical adage of training children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6) seems to suggest there is a way of teaching values that will stick “when they are old.” Modern research concurs: if children cherish positive social behaviors as a part of their identity, they will maintain them even when circumstances are challenging. But achieving this level of internalization begins with parents modeling the behavior they want to see in their children, both toward their children and toward others. As every parent is well aware, children observe and mimic the people they love.
Beyond setting an example, however, parents are also responsible for directly teaching children and encouraging positive social behaviors. How? Certainly tangible rewards and punishments have their place. But parents might be surprised by the power words of gratitude and other expressions of approval can wield in motivating their children. Acknowledgment of their success in reaching our standards feeds their sense of accomplishment, their belief in their ability to creatively solve problems, and their sense of being part of something larger than themselves. In fact, studies of young children as well as adolescents find that the right kind of encouraging praise for positive behaviors (“You were kind to that child, and I’m proud of you”), rather than sweeping judgments, which can actually be harmful (“You are the best little boy in the whole world!”), is strongly tied to internalizing prosocial values and behavior.
But for praise and approval to be effective, children must see themselves as having chosen to perform the positive behaviors. This doesn’t remove parents from the equation. Rather it challenges them to engage deeply enough to identify their children’s perspective and know when to intervene to help them adjust their thinking and see circumstances through another person’s eyes. When children understand why and how others need to be helped and are motivated by empathy to provide that help, then praise and approval will have the effect that parents want: the behavior will be internalized. On the other hand, when children are praised for rote behaviors without understanding the need for them, they learn to be motivated by strokes to their self-esteem.
This leads to the fourth area of influence identified by Grusec and Sherman: guided learning, which can occur at home, in school, during participation in team sports, and in many other social contexts. Parents, of course, take the lead in actively talking about social and emotional issues in age-appropriate terms even before their children can talk. Just as parents point to household objects and give them names, they can point out “sad faces” or “happy faces” and name the emotions. According to the researchers, “toddlers whose mothers try to explain emotions when talking to them and who direct them to label emotions are more likely to attempt to understand the emotional states of others, as well as to express concern for others.”
As children grow and continue to interact socially, additional opportunities arise for parents to guide them in learning about the emotions and intentions of others; for example, children will need help to discriminate between intentional and accidental actions and cause-and-effect as they play with other children.
An important milestone is reached by 13 months, say researchers, when children figure out that some intentions belong only to individuals, while others are shared by groups. With this understanding they begin to be influenced by a fifth factor: group participation. This simply refers to the fact that we all want to belong, and in our efforts to do so we emulate the established routines of the group we identify with. Even young children display a deep concern about following accepted norms. Parents can use this drive constructively by exposing them to examples of positive behavior, whether within the family, in the media or in the community. The drive to identify with a larger crowd can be a powerful tool for reinforcing the child’s self-identity as a concerned and active “helper,” but it can also backfire: the wrong kind of media exposure and other group influences can, of course, reinforce antisocial behavior.
What is the common denominator in each of these areas of influence? Monkey see, monkey do. The behaviors adults use in their relationships are mirrored in those of their children. This should point out very clearly to parents that focusing only on punishment for negative behavior will not accomplish the desired end. Children need to be taught to extend active, positive behavior. It’s not enough for parents to avoid antisocial behaviors in their own interactions; they need to be actively prosocial in their parenting: talking about emotions; expressing and demonstrating empathy, approval, gratitude, love, forgiveness and support; granting reasonable requests; and spending enjoyable, positive social time with children.
Like it or not, we make our children in our image. How will they connect to us? How will they connect to significant others throughout life, and to the rest of humanity? We can predict the answers to these questions fairly accurately simply by examining how they experience us connecting to others.
The good news is that it’s never too late for anyone to change, but when it comes to helping children go in the right direction, it’s a parent’s responsibility to take the first positive steps early.