Kindness – How do Children Become Kind?

[This is a non-technical piece I did for the Powering Kindness campaign on the development of kindness in children, and how it relates to changes in brain function].

It’s an age-old argument – are we born to be kind to others or do we learn to be kind to others? Across all societies, humans of all ages show a very strong tendency to be concerned about the welfare of others. This may especially be for people whom they know, including close family members and members of their local groups. But the phrase ‘the kindness of strangers’ also has a strong resonance, one never felt more acutely than when travelling in other countries where you know nobody, and might need help – and it is freely given without expectation of a return.

Prosocial behaviour is a much more common feature of humans than is antisocial behaviour. The problem, though, is that like a fish not noticing the water within which it swims, we find it hard to notice how prosocial our fellow humans are. But – look around – in shops and conversations and families – people behave nicely and kindly toward each other (not always, but mostly). How does this happen?

Children can and do show a willingness to share rewards, treats and other desirable items, but this tendency depends on, and changes with, age. As a general rule, children of about the ages of 3-4 can be quite selfish and resist sharing their treats and toys with others, but by the ages of 7-8 children have become very prosocial and willing to share with others. There is clearly an important developmental change over this period, one that rests in part in changes in the brain, and in part on the experience children have over these years.

Some clever experiments recently conducted in Switzerland through light on this change. The researchers gave young children the opportunity to share sweets between themselves and others simultaneously by choosing a whether or not another child would get a treat at the same time as themselves (the experimenter allowed them to choose using the rule: one sweet for and one sweet for you or one sweet for me, and no sweets for you). As the treats were distributed by the experiment there was no cost to themselves if they make a choice where the other child gets a reward or not. Their tendency at the age of 3 or 4 is, on average, to restrict the rewards to themselves – even though it makes no difference, as they will get rewarded anyway! But over the next few years this behaviour shows a marked shift, and children will allocate treats to others at about the same rate that they allocate treats to themselves. They also show a bias towards favouring the giving of treats preferentially to members of their own playgroup, rather than children who are members of other playgroups (which is a really quite remarkable phenomenon).

However, this picture of children as being selfish at the age of 3 or 4 is more nuanced. A 3 or 4-year-old child will show a marked empathic reaction to seeing the face of somebody else who is suffering pain, even if they are unable to assist in relieving that person’s pain. During specially-devised games, when playing alongside strangers where the stranger requires a piece of a toy in order to complete a game, they will hand over, often without prompting, the missing object.

Many of these changes in their behaviour come in lockstep with changes seen in the development of the brain. A recent important study conducted in Chicago in the United States on 3 to 5-year-old preschoolers examined how acts of generosity and kindness are reflected in the activity of brainwaves recorded in children while they watched cartoons of characters behaving in a generous, kind or prosocial fashion, or in a mean, ungenerous or antisocial fashion. The advantage of using cartoons is that it allows you to measure the extent to which the children make a fast gut response (reflected in their brain waves) one that is swift and automatic in nature, when they see either a kind act or an unkind act being made on the television screen. The children were then allowed to choose gifts for the characters who had behaved in a prosocial or kind way, or an antisocial or unkind way. In an interesting example of children policing the antisocial behaviour of others, here the children were unlikely to give gifts to the antisocial children, but they were likely to give gifts (of desirable stickers) to the kind and generous children. The scientists also showed that you could predict the response of the child on the basis of the brainwave activity that had occurred during the cartoon phase.  The children uniformly showed relatively quick and automatic responses to either the helping or the hurting scenarios. Interestingly, the researchers suggested that by encouraging children to think about or be mindful of what it is that others do, their moral behaviour, we might actually encourage sharing and generosity in children and in turn, this will allow them to develop a concern for fairness and for wellbeing in others.

These findings hints at the astonishing plasticity that can be found in the human brain: the automatic responses that we make when we see things can be changed, both by development, but also by our experience and our willingness to reflect on the things that happen to us.


Egalitarianism in young children. Fehr E, Bernhard H, Rockenbach B. Nature. 2008 Aug 28;454(7208):1079-83

The neuroscience of implicit moral evaluation and its relation to generosity in early childhood. Cowell JM, Decety J. Curr Biol. 2015 Jan 5;25(1):93-7

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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