You wouldn’t think cooperation and the urge to selflessly help others are innate human characteristics. Just look at the resistance to giving everyone access to health care. Look how the flag of “personal responsibility” gets waved around difficult issues like homelessness, obesity, unintended pregnancy and kids throwing temper tantrums.
But a new book and many studies argue that altruism and the need to help others — from an age when we’re still in great need of help ourselves — is what makes humans human. And how we as a species have survived and evolved.
What makes biologists think we are born do-gooders?
In the New York Times, Michael Tomasello, author of Why We Cooperate, says that signs of our desire to help show up in babies and toddlers — as early as 12 months — at a time before the rules of please, thank you and don’t be evil are drilled into us. An 18-month-old will offer to help a complete stranger carry things, a 12-month-old will point out an item that a parent pretends to have lost.
Aren’t they just imitating the generosity of their caregivers. Probably not. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthroplogy, says studies show rewards for helpfulness don’t work, which suggests kids they can’t be trained to be giving.
Furthermore, by the time kids are 3, according to Tomasello, they’re more selective in their helpfulness, tending to favor those who have previously been nice to them. At this age, kids also develop what Tomasello calls “shared intentionality,” the ability to form common goals and coordinate activities.
This shared intentionality, some argue, forms the basis of human society and was the key to human evolution. Early humans had to work together to survive. They refined the expression of their shared intentionality, formed social rules and eventually developed language.
I think for some parents (me!) this information is less of a shock and more of a reinforcement of what we’ve observed. Kids are, actually, kind of nice. Generous, really. And not because we told them so. Or because they’re manipulating us (or wrapping us around their fingers or whatever).
Now, all of this goodness and helpfulness and generosity isn’t necessarily (or sometimes, ever) directed at siblings. After all, Tomasello acknowledges, there’s an innate selfishness also at play and every kid is vying for the limited parental resources. This dilemma between selfishness and altruism, Tomasello argues, is what truly make us human. (You wouldn’t see chimps arguing the pros and cons of a public option, now would you? But I’m guess sibling chimps will fight over who gets the last banana.)
Oh, AND, this explains why at parent-teacher conferences, reports about your overbearing oldest and fit-throwing middle child include baffling observations like “works well in groups,” and “accepts disappointment with ease,” respectively. Kids behave more selfishly at home than elsewhere.
Other researchers have come to similar — or at least compatible — conclusions as Tomasello, but he goes all Dr. Spock/Sears/Phil on us and says parents can leverage this innate altruism in day-to-day parenting. He says “inductive parenting” works best for kids.
From the Times:
… [Inductive parenting] reinforces the child’s natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.
Oh, so that’s all! Wouldn’t it be easier to just shame them with blanket phrases like “personal responsibility”?
Photo: NY Times.com