What can parents do to promote helpfulness and generosity in their adolescents?

There are many popular books on how parents can raise their children and adolescents to be good moral agents. However, research by developmental psychologists has focused mostly on negative moral behaviors. Much less attention has been paid to practices associated with fostering prosocial moral tendencies (Carlo, 2006). Prosocial tendencies include empathy and sympathy, helping behaviors (including altruism, volunteering, comforting, sharing, donations).

Much of the focus on parenting has been on parenting styles: responsiveness and demandingness. Responsiveness refers to warm, nurturing actions that show love and emotional support. Demandingness are actions that set moral standards and expectations. Scholars assert that children whose parents who are responsive and demanding are more likely to benefit from higher moral developmental outcomes. However, it is often difficult to determine how responsive or demanding a parent should be with their child. So, we are trying to determine whether studying specific practices that parents use is a better approach. We have conducted a series of studies aimed at identifying parenting practices that promote prosocial tendencies in adolescents.

Identifying parenting practices that promote prosocial behaviors We identified five common practices that parents use to foster prosocial behaviors in their adolescents. Parents reported that they use social rewards, material rewards, moral conversations, discursive communication, and experiental learning to promote positive social behaviors. Social rewards include giving praise, love, and approval for their actions. Material rewards refer to money and material gifts for good action. Moral conversations describe discussions about moral issues. Discursive communication reflects adolescent-centered discussions that consider the adolescent’s point of view. Finally, experiental learning refers to hands-on experiences involving charity work.

Specific parenting practices predict specific types of prosocial behaviors

In a series of studies (e.g., Carlo et al., in press), we have found evidence that specific parenting practices were related to specific types of prosocial behaviors. Specifically,

• Social rewards were associated with selfless-motivated prosocial behaviors but material rewards were associated with selfish-motivated prosocial behaviors

• More frequent conversations about moral issues and experiental learning opportunities were related to more selfless-motivated prosocial behaviors

• Discursive communication was weakly related to prosocial behaviors

• Most importantly, however, the pattern of findings showed that the reason why those practices were associated with prosocial behaviors was because they seem to promote sympathy (feelings of sorrow and concern for others)

• Sympathy, in turn, predicted more selfless-motivated prosocial behaviors

The findings suggest that parents who desire their kids to be less selfish and more kind and generous to others, should encourage prosocial behaviors by providing social rewards, providing hands-on charity experiences, and have frequent conversations about moral issues. Moreover, the findings suggest that these parenting practices might foster sympathy, which is critical for prosocial behaviors.

We would like to thank you greatly for your contribution in assisting us with this research. The findings are being disseminated locally and nationally to inform and educate interested groups. We hope such findings will eventually lead to more effective parenting techniques and healthier adolescents.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Professor Gustavo Carlo.