Toddlers are impossible. Everyone knows this. They are selfish and solipsistic. They are awful until they turn 2, at which point they become terrible. They have big heads. Literally. A roomful of toddlers is like The Lord of Flies, but with a shorter running time.
Everyone knows this. But everyone is wrong. And in the final week of How Babies Work, it seems fitting to look beyond infancy—to look at what changes when babies become toddlers. Among the most notable changes is that they begin to help, to cooperate, to share—they exhibit what psychologists call prosocial behavior. In recent years there’s been a rush of research on the development of prosocial behavior and it suggests that toddlers have a serious publicity problem. In study after study, they act not as the spawn of the devil but as good Samaritans.
When the situation is clear enough—when it isn’t a scrum in the sandbox—toddlers are often charitable and deeply generous. They willingly work together with adults on new tasks. They voluntarily help out when an adult drops or is missing something. They share food; sometimes they even share toys. They respond empathetically to someone in distress.
If you have a toddler, such descriptions may make you despair. Your toddler doesn’t act like this, no matter how much you tell him to share! So stop telling him to share. And you might notice that your little monster is already helping out in his own way.
This prosocial orientation is fundamental to what makes us human. “No matter how much you try to socialize your cat to be prosocial, it is just not going to happen,” says Celia Brownell, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The nicest, smartest cat in the world is never going to do that.”
But being prepared to become prosocial is not the same thing as being prosocial. At a year of age, babies are socially intrigued by other babies. “They smile at each other, they pat each other on the head,” Brownell says. “But they also often crawl over each other, knock each other down, and if you put them all in a room, they’re like ships passing in the night.” They act not unlike cats. Being prepared isn’t enough.
“Whatever it is that’s prepared is prepared to develop within this cradle of rich, social engagement,” says Brownell. Her work focuses not on the innate origins of prosocial behavior—what we get for free—but on how it develops through daily social experience: “The baby is embedded, enmeshed, in this incredibly rich, active social world. We just ramp that up over the course of infancy.”
A wonderful study out of Brownell’s lab shows how toddlers, over the course of the second year, slowly climb up this scaffolding that adults provide. In the experiment, an adult provided a toddler with cues—verbal, facial, postural—that were increasingly explicit about the problem: The adult was freezing. At the subtlest level, the adult said “brrrr” while shivering; at the most explicit level, the adult flat-out asked for a blanket.
“Our thinking was that if children are being socialized and coming into the notion of caring about others, they may differ primarily in how much information they need to implement a prosocial response,” Brownell says. And they did: The 18-month-olds wouldn’t act until the adult had gotten to the sixth of eight levels—mentioning the blanket and asking for help (but not yet asking for the blanket). Only at that point could the toddlers connect the dots. The 30-month-olds helped far earlier, often after the adult said, “I’m cold” (the second level).
This is strikingly different from how precocious very young toddlers are at helping adults complete tasks—picking up an object an experimenter drops, for example. Indeed, in a separate part of Brownell’s study children of all ages helped much earlier at this goal-directed helping, known as instrumental helping. This sort of helping is about visual cues, not inner states, and a 1-year-old can recognize these cues. (I wrote about how children begin to understand the idea of goals here.) But that 1-year-old simply isn’t able to infer an inner state. In order to help empathically, she needs to be told what someone is feeling. A year later, though, she’s learned to figure this out on her own.
This perspective undermines a lot of assumptions about how children learn proper social behavior. As parents, we tend to think that children have to be actively taught how to share, or how to be cooperative. At any crowded sandbox there is a nervous background hum of parental correctives and directives. It can feel as if, without this paternalistic nudging, the children would break into marauding bands, and the morning would end with Milo head down in the sand volcano and his stroller raided for its suckable fruit snacks.
What the work of Brownell and other prosocial researchers suggests is that children already understand a lot about prosocial behavior after a couple of years in the world. We think we’re teaching our children to help and share, but we don’t know what our children already know. We’re embarrassingly out of it. We’re like the parent who sits his teenager down for a talk about drugs—but doesn’t realize that his kid is stoned.
This is at odds with how parents think about toddlers in part because we parents are obsessed with sharing. It’s true that toddlers are not especially altruistic. They don’t want to give up their toy to another kid in the sandbox. But adults don’t like to give up their toys either. And when the task is less monumental—when cooperation or assistance is required, rather than sacrifice—toddlers are far more willing to help. Altruism is the most demanding sort of prosocial behavior. When we scold toddlers for not sharing their toys, and then think of them as antisocial monsters, we’re grading them as harshly as possibly.
Besides, a toddler may not even be able to tell what another toddler wants. Young toddlers often need help in order to help, as Brownell’s work shows, and they don’t get it from other toddlers. As Brownell has written, “Peers may be a bit of a mystery, their intentions inscrutable, their behavior often uninterpretable.” When she studied cooperation among toddlers, she says, “it was clear that very young kids couldn’t manage a simple cooperation task that was within all of their motor and cognitive abilities—when they had to do it with another kid. They just didn’t get it.” But adults do get it and they help toddlers get it. That’s partly why toddlers act differently in the lab than they do in the sandbox.
Toddlers pick up prosocial behavior from the stray moments of everyday life. And once you look for it, you can see cooperation is embedded everywhere. Playing peek-a-boo and rolling a ball back and forth are cooperative acts. So is encouraging your child to “help” in the kitchen, to feed the dog, to sweep the floor. “These are all forms of helping that are absolutely part of everyday interaction that we just don’t think about—and if we thought about it, it would probably be a bad thing, like thinking too hard about your tennis game,” Brownell says. “It falls apart.”
Having your child sweep the floor doesn’t actually help the floor. But it helps him: It introduces the concept of helping, and it may prompt him to reflect the relationship between his actions and the needs of others. It’s this crucial “self-other” understanding that is the foundation of autonomous prosocial behavior, Brownell argues. (Simply telling him what to do seems to be counterproductive, in fact.)
You see this foundation being laid in another study from her lab, in which parents and toddlers read picture books together and talked about the emotions of the characters. When the parents simply labeled and explained the emotions, there was no effect. But when parents elicited the participation of the toddlers—when the toddlers were encouraged to puzzle out the emotions on their own—they were more prosocial. Even the younger toddlers went on to help and share more.
In other words, before a toddler can bring you a blanket, he has to understand that you are a different person with different emotions, and that what you want and need may be, bizarrely, different from what he wants and needs. What you can see over the course of toddlerhood, and what you yourself unwittingly help with, is him coming into this new knowledge. It’s no small thing. I’m still working on it myself.
Nicholas Day’s book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is nicholasday.net. He is @nicksday on Twitter.