By J Kelly McCoy
Jennifer, a 14 year old girl, is rushing to get to her church youth leadership meeting. It is important to her that she be at the meeting on time because she is in charge of the planning portion of the meeting for that day. On the way to her meeting, Jennifer sees that Mrs. Schwartz , an older widow in the neighborhood, is struggling to get her large grocery bags from her car into her house. Jennifer can think of a hundred reasons to not stop and help: Mrs. Schwartz and her house smell like too many cats; if given the opportunity Mrs. Schwartz will talk for hours to anyone who will listen; Jennifer has her new cream colored sweater on and doesn't want to risk getting it dirty; and Jennifer really does not want to be late for her meeting. Besides, no one else is around, so no one will even know that Jennifer did not stop to help. Not even Mrs. Schwartz has seen Jennifer walking along the sidewalk across the street. But Jennifer knows that if her grandmother was in the same situation she would want someone to stop and help her. So, taking a deep breath, Jennifer detours off of her path to the church and heads across the street to help Mrs. Schwartz with her groceries.
In this story, Jennifer is faced with a difficult choice, but is able to make the most morally correct choice without being pressured to do so by parents or anyone else. A primary goal of most parents is to help their children learn to make morally correct decisions when confronted with difficult choices. But how can we, as parents, best instill within our children this ability. It is not something we can force upon them, but we can provide opportunities and guidance that will encourage them to internalize these qualities on their own.
To better understand how to help children be more morally responsive toward others, it is important to first differentiate between two primary types of helping behavior: prosocial and altruistic. Prosocial behavior is any action that benefits other people. Altruistic behavior is the willingness to help another without thought of personal compensation. People can engage in both prosocial and altruistic behavior, but not all prosocial behavior would be considered altruistic. Often we engage in behaviors that benefit others, but do it because it primarily benefits us. For example, many people give their plasma to a blood bank, which is very beneficial to others, but do it primarily because of the money they are paid for giving the plasma. In contrast, when people act altruistically, they do so with little or no thought for their own immediate welfare, without expectation of what they will get in return, and sometimes even at the sacrifice of their own longer-term needs and wishes. In our story about Jennifer, I would contend that she acted based on an altruistic motivation.
Children have a great potential capacity to engage in both prosocial and altruistic behavior. Even though we don't see evidence of true altruism until later in childhood, we do see evidence of prosocial behavior very early on. Within the first month of life, infants already demonstrate a very elementary ability to respond to the distress of another by crying when they hear the cries of another infant. Similarly, helping and sharing are common behaviors in very young children. In the first 12 to 18 months of life, some toddlers are already able to behave compassionately. Although many young toddlers will respond to a person in distress by moving themselves away from the uncomfortable situation, some toddlers - when they see someone in distress - will seek out their mother or some other adult to tend to the distressed person. By 1 1/2 to 2 years of age, children will often attempt to comfort a distressed person on their own, even to provide comforting behavior that is specific to the distressful event.
Although children are born with the potential for altruistic behavior, these values and behavior are only likely to emerge if we as parents provide opportunities for our children to discover for themselves their own goodness. So, what can parents do that will encourage altruism within their children?
To explore this concept more fully, I would like to begin by sharing one of my favorite stories by President Thomas S. Monson, the recently sustained president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As you read this story, please look for the changing emotions that young Tommy experiences. Also, look for the ways in which his mother teaches him the joy of kindness or of being altruistic toward others.
President Monson has related a personal experience he had as a young boy. One Christmas, Tommy received a long-yearned-for electric train. His mother had also purchased a less expensive windup train as a gift for a neighbor boy named Mark.
Before Tommy Monson went with his mother to deliver the gift to Mark, he noticed that the windup train included an oil tanker car. He decided he wanted it for his own train, and pleaded with his mother to let him keep the car. Finally she handed the oil tanker car over, saying, "If you need it more than Mark, you take it."
When Tommy and his mother arrived at the neighbor's home, Mark was thrilled with the gift and watched with joy as his new windup train, with only an engine and the two remaining cars, went around the track. President Monson recalls his mother wisely asking, "What do you think of Mark's train, Tommy?"
President Monson recalled that "I felt a keen sense of guilt and became very much aware of my foolishness," he said. "I said to mother, `Wait just a moment; I'll be right back.' "
Tommy ran to his home, retrieved the oil tanker car, then added an additional car from his own set. Then he hurried back and said to Mark, "We forgot to bring two cars that belong to your train."
President Monson reported that he "felt a supreme joy difficult to describe and impossible to forget" as he watched Mark's lengthened train move around its track. President Monson concluded by stating that "I had found the Christmas spirit" (Ensign, Mar 1987, pp. 75-80).
Tommy Monson learned an important lesson that day, not because his mother forced him to do the right thing, but because his mother knew how to awaken within Tommy the goodness that she knew already existed in him.
To conclude, I would like to point out four ways that I believe we can encourage our children to discover their own altruistic potential.
Our children can learn the joy of altruistic behavior when we provide them opportunities to experience kindness toward others and as we are examples of that same kindness in our lives. In the rush and frustration of life this is not always easy. Sometimes it is difficult for us to stop what we are doing and do for others who are in need. But as we take the opportunity to serve, and as we look for these opportunities for our children, we will give our children one of the greatest gifts that we could hope to share.
J. Kelly McCoy is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho