Kids are Not Naturally Nice – Parents Shape Future Heroes

For years, research has led parents to believe that children are naturally helpful and cooperative, before gradually learning to be selective about whom they help. Now this interpretation is being challenged by Stanford University research, which claims that altruistic behavior is governed more by social relationships than inborn instincts. What’s more, parent-child relationships may help make or break the world’s future heroes.

Real, pure altruism is where pro-social acts are performed without expecting anything in return. Reciprocal altruism on the other hand is where past experiences make an individual like someone and want to be kind to them, or they may indeed feel obligated to be kind, with the expectation that the favor may be returned later. This marked difference is at the heart of how earlier research may have been wrongfully interpreted.

In the original 2006 study and in later experiments by the same research team, a pre-experiment warm-up period involved a few minutes of play to make the children feel comfortable with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Little did the researchers know that they were unwittingly priming their toddler subjects towards being altruistic through play. They were exchanging acts of kindness in back and forth play before the experiment had even began, socially inclining the child to behave altruistically with the experimenter.

Building on this, the Stanford University research by Dr. Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Prof. Carol Dweck, was designed to control for the effect of the pre-experiment play period. One set of experiments were a mirror of the 2006 research, where the experimenter and child rolled a ball back and forth in reciprocal play. Subsequently, the experimenter would ‘accidentally’ knock an object off of the table, to see if the child would help pick it up for them.

The difference in the second set of experiments was that non-reciprocal, parallel play was used instead of reciprocal play. Here, both experimenter and child had their own ball to play with before the child was prompted to help by knocking the object to the floor. Remarkably, children partaking in reciprocal, back and forth play were three times more likely to help pick up the item than if they had played with the experimenter in parallel.

The experimenters also ruled out the level of fun each of the groups had in producing different results for reciprocal and non-reciprocal play, however the extent to which the child related to the experimenter may be the key as lead author Dr. Barragan explains:

“It is possible that the synchrony involved in the reciprocal play activates the brain’s mirror neuron system such that the child begins to see the experimenter as similar to the self. According to other scientists working in this field, when we see ourselves in others, we are drawn to them, and offer to help them.”

This behavior may not be limited to toddlers and young children, the Stanford researchers have preliminary data that indicates reciprocal play can elicit higher degrees of altruism in college students than parallel play can.

Essentially, if we want to live in a world where people do good and are kind to one another, it begins with us adults to lead by example. This can start early in life with the simple advice from Dr. Barragan:

“Parents should play interactively with children. Don’t just buy toys – play along too!”

This message is built upon in research investigating the influence of parental factors in the making of the extraordinary Carnegie Heroes, who courageously saved or tried to save the lives of others. The only self-reported parenting factor analyzed that significantly differentiated the Carnegie Heroes from a random sample was that their parents expected them to help others.

In line with other work, this led the authors to suggest that beyond fostering reciprocal altruism, parents should also instil a responsibility to take action to help, where the child feels responsible for the well-being of others.

However, Dr. Barragan reminds us that creating altruistic heroes of the future is not solely the responsibility of parents, it’s the responsibility of nurseries, schools, teachers and communities as a whole, with outcomes that go beyond the helping of others:

“We believe that people should try to build warm, positive relationships with children through reciprocal interactions. These relationships of mutual trust have the potential to help children not only to help others, but to feel more comfortable in the world and to achieve much more as a result.”


Cortes Barragan R, & Dweck CS (2014). Rethinking natural altruism: simple reciprocal interactions trigger children’s benevolence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (48), 17071-4 PMID: 25404334

Warneken F, & Tomasello M (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science (New York, N.Y.), 311 (5765), 1301-3 PMID: 16513986

Image via alphaspirit / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
See All Posts By The Author