At What Age Does an Attitude of Altruism Start?

kidsaltruism

Your kids are watching and modeling your behavior perhaps earlier than you realize.

In a study led by Jonas G. Miller of the University of California, Davis, researchers recruited 74 pre-schoolers (average age 4 years old) from the local community. In the lab, the researchers played with the children one by one and explained that they would earn tokens that they could trade for prizes at the end of their visit.

As part of the visit, researchers attached (with parental consent) electrodes to each child’s torso to collect physiological data, including information about heart rate and vagal tone, which provides a useful measure of the body’s ability to regulate physiological stress responses. High vagal tone is related to feeling safe and calm, says Miller, and has been associated with better physical health, behavior, and social skills among young children.

Near the end of their visits, the children were given the chance to donate some or all of their prize tokens to fictitious sick children who weren’t able to come to the lab.

The resulting data revealed that the act of donating was, in itself, associated with higher vagal tone at the end of the task.

“We usually think of altruism as coming at a cost to the giver, but our findings suggest that when children forgo self-gain to help people who are less fortunate, they may get something back in the form of higher vagal tone,” Miller explains. “It means we might be wired from a young age to derive a sense of safety from providing care for others.”

The team also assessed the “nurture” aspect of altruism, looking at the relationship between family socioeconomic status (SES) and the sharing of prize tokens. The families of the children studied were middle- to upper-middle income, with an average income in the $75,000-$90,000 range.

The data revealed that children from more wealthy families in the study shared fewer tokens than the children from less wealthy families.

“This implies that certain aspects of high-SES culture that have been observed in adults, such as increased self-focus and decreased social sensitivity, might be present in children as young as 4 years of age,” says Miller.

The researchers note that because children from less wealthy families donated more tokens, they may get a helpful physiological boost from altruistic behavior. This boost might help to offset some of the physiological disadvantage associated with growing up in a lower-income household.

“Our findings suggest that fostering altruistic tendencies might be one path to promoting better health and well-being for all children,” Miller concludes.

So who knew that being generous benefits us not only psychologically, but physically as well.

And who would have thought that kids as young as 4 would be picking up on their parents’ attitudes about helping others.

As noted in a previous post, you should Live As If Your Kids Are Watching

You can read the full study here.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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