Are ‘Good Kids’ Ever Actually Selfless or Generous?

Whether children are capable of true kindness—and, indeed, whether altruism even exists among adults—is hotly disputed by researchers.

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When my two-year-old son sees his newborn sister crying, he toddles toward her bassinet, wraps her in a suffocating hug, and presses his drooling lips against her cheek. He’s comforting her in his own way, and it’s certainly sweet. But is it kind or altruistic? Does my son care or is he mimicking his parents, playing a game, and selfishly seeking reward for acting like he’s emotionally engaged? I know what I want to think. I know what other parents want to think. I’m just not sure — not deeply confident — that I can discern the motivations of my boy.

I don’t think he’s intentionally manipulative or machiavellian mind you (again, he’s two), but I do think that his brain and my brain are very organs. And, yes, research supports that hypothesis.

“Children often find joy in helping others,” says Gail D. Heyman, a psychologist who studies social cognition in children and adults at the University of California, San Diego, but she hesitates when asked about selflessness. “It depends on how you define pure altruism,” Heyman says. “If you do something good because you want to think of yourself as a good person, is that true altruism? If you believe God will give you credit for helping, is that true altruism?”

The question get really big really quick, which is why it’s so important to return to the studies. And, let me tell you, there are a lot of studies.

Scientists have spent decades working to figure out when children develop helpful tendencies. Researchers generally agree that toddlers begin acting kind and helping others by age two, offering to retrieve dropped objects, providing comfort to whimpering siblings, and trying to shove carrot sticks into dad’s mouth (if you’re a parent, you get it). But long before then, children seem to understand the social value of acting kind. As early as six months of age, infants prefer to reach for a character who helped another character in a puppet show and, by 10 months, they prefer puppets that interact with helpful characters. At one…

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