Monthly Article January 2007

Nurturing Our Genetic Gifts

Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.
January, 2007
Copyright 2007

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity of evaluating Alan, an eleven-year-old, fifth grader. Though quite bright and academically accomplished, Alan was struggling in school due to his very poor planning and organizational skills. During the course of our discussion I asked Alan what he was proud of doing at school. Without hesitation Alan responded, "I like to help others."

Alan explained that when students finished their work, one of the options in the classroom was to assist other students in need of help. Alan explained that because he was disorganized he didn't finish very often but when he did he very much enjoyed helping others.

"Do you get paid for this?" I asked tongue in cheek.

"No, I just like to help other people", Alan answered seriously.

Time and time again in my clinical practice, I have had the opportunity to interview children with views similar to Alan's. Children, or for that matter all human beings, like to help, even when there is no obvious return for them and in some cases even when they have to make sacrifices. This pattern of behavior is altruistic. Altruistic behavior reflects selfless concern for the well being of others, sometimes with obvious expense (e.g., I give up an afternoon of free time to volunteer) and at other times with no apparent sacrifice.

You may have noticed that two-year-olds, regardless of gender, culture, ethnicity or religion love to help. They love to cook, clean and if given the opportunity, drive the car. They are blissfully unaware of their limitations and so they offer to help in even the most "adult like" and demanding tasks. When left to their own devices they seek out activities mimicking adult life. Among their greatest fascinations are getting into the cupboards and playing with pots and pans. We think this behavior is cute. At times we also find this behavior annoying and eventually put locks on the cabinets, partly for our children's safety but partly to avoid repeated chaos in our nicely organized cabinets. By age twelve, particularly in our culture, when we ask children for help many typically respond they are too busy. Culture or genetics?

These early emerging altruistic traits of helping are genetically driven. The seeming selfishness so often observed in our children today appears to be culturally driven. As Matt Ridley has written, "we come into this world equipped with genetically determined predispositions to learn how to cooperate, commit ourselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to divide labor and to help." Our minds, Ridley writes, may have been built by "selfish genes but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative." Yet genes evolved in concert with our environment. Thus, they require stimulation from the environment to operate. A child may have all of the genes necessary to learn to communicate but if never spoken to - never speaks. What we have traditionally labeled as "cute" or "imitative" behavior in young children actually represents the early emerging genetic, altruistic drive to help and be part of the larger group. Failure to appreciate and reinforce this drive likely leads to failure of these genes to develop and drive cooperative, empathic and altruistic behavior.

In a recent article published in Science (Vol. 311, pages 1301-1303), researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany published research in which they tested the idea that we are born selfish and become social through moral education and child rearing. This study is but a part of a larger research program studying altruism in children. These researchers are examining whether inborn altruism is impacted by external forces. They are also studying explicit efforts to foster altruism in children in classrooms through cooperative rather than competitive activities and through school programs requiring students to volunteer in their communities.

In this particular study, researchers tested toddlers' altruism and their patience. To evaluate their willingness to help out, researchers devised an experiment in which they dropped an object on the floor as many as fifteen times. They were surprised to find that each time the toddler would pick it up and hand it back again and again. These researchers concluded that selfish and altruistic motives present in young children from the beginning in competition with each other. Those that emerge are based on those that are reinforced.


In one scenario of the experiment, researchers dropped a spoon into a flapped box and pretended they could not get it out again. Though the researchers never directly asked children for help or rewarded them for helping, yet virtually all of the twenty-four children in the study helped the researcher, usually within ten seconds. Amazingly, three young chimpanzees studied with the same scenario helped as well with similar tasks. These researchers concluded that even young children without much socialization experience are willing and able to help spontaneously. Further, when the researchers appeared to purposely throw a peg on the floor, the infants and the chimpanzees could distinguish between situations in which help was needed and where help was unnecessary.

If fourteen-month-old children can make this distinction, it certainly is the case that the helping behavior of young children logically reflects a drive towards mastery, assistance and altruism. In our work, my colleague, Dr. Robert Brooks, and I have incorporated altruism as a foundation to help children build responsibility, compassion and a social conscientious. We have noted that in observing children through this perspective we can marvel at how helpful and responsible they wish to be. Some of this behavior is rooted in the excitement that most children experience when they undertake new activities and challenges. But this reason alone does not explain this pattern of behavior. Our belief that children possess an inborn need or drive to be altruistic and make a positive difference for others is further reinforced by the research at the Max Planck Institute. Though many children can be self-centered, at times placing their own needs first, as these researchers have demonstrated this trait is frequently accompanied simultaneously by a pattern in which children achieve pleasure in reaching out and being helpful. It has been our experience that children welcome invitations to be of assistance. These opportunities often form central themes in childhood memories. Many years ago, my colleague, Dr. Robert Brooks, asked a large group of adults to describe their most positive memories from their school years. Their responses reflected the themes of altruism. They recalled having the responsibility of helping with classroom activities, tutoring younger children and assisting the teacher. These responses and recent research validate psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner's observation that part of every child's curriculum at school and experience at home should reflect opportunities to care for and help others. Altruism is a major building block in developing a resilient mindset.

Two additional research studies are important to make note of in reflecting on the importance of parents in nurturing our genetic gifts of helpfulness. Over ten years ago, a study in the scientific journal Child Development (Vol. 57, 1358-1369) reported that volunteers who fulfilled their commitments had parents who modeled helpfulness. They also had good relationships with their parents. Those who did not fulfill their commitments had parents who hadn't modeled helpfulness and had poor relationships with them. Thus it would appear that children are more likely to pay attention to a parental model if they had a good relationship with that parent.

It is also not unexpected that when we discuss genetics we discover that some individuals may be more strongly endowed with certain traits or qualities. This is likely true for altruism as well. In a 1999 study published in Child Development (Vol. 70, 1360-1372) Dr. Nancy Eisenberg at Arizona State University tracked thirty-two children from pre-school into early adulthood finding evidence that some in fact had altruistic personalities. In this study, altruistic behavior in early childhood predicted altruistic behavior in adulthood. Children who offered help spontaneously rather than in response to a request for help were more likely to exhibit similar patterns of behavior into their early adulthood years.

In our first book, Raising Resilient Children, we outlined five guiding principles to help children develop responsibility, compassion and a social conscience - the building blocks of altruism. In our next book, Raising a Self-Disciplined Child, to be published in the summer of 2007 (McGraw-Hill), we further explore these themes. These principles are worth re-visiting as parents and educators.

  • Principle One: Serve as a model of responsibility. As the research has demonstrated, children are observant, not only of what parents and educators say but more importantly of what we do.
  • Principle Two: Provide opportunities for children to feel they are helping others. One of my most memorable experiences as a therapist was when a fifteen-year-old student with significant learning disabilities began tutoring younger children with reading problems. Her first comments upon entering my office were, "Can you believe it? I can read well enough to teach someone else!" Children's inborn altruistic traits are an obvious fit with reinforcing a sense of responsibility and compassion.
  • Principle Three: Develop traditions to become a charitable family or classroom. A charitable family or classroom develops a tradition of involving the entire family or class in helping others. In doing so, parents and teachers reinforce in their children the belief that they are important, that they have the capability of helping others, that they are appreciated and that they make a difference.
  • Principle Four: Distribute responsibilities equally. Children must understand why it is important for everyone in the family or classroom to help and how the work can be distributed equitably.
  • Principle Five: Take a helicopter view. A helicopter view helps to off set the narrow view that change must take place quickly. It is easy for parents and teachers to place too much weight on one area in which a child may be struggling and in the process undervalue other areas in which the child is acting responsibly and altruistically.

Dr. Brooks and I are very pleased that the emerging body of behavioral genetics research is providing a strong scientific foundation for our theories of resilience, a resilient mindset and a strength based model. When we fail to appreciate and nurture the very qualities that make us who we are, we do a disservice to our children in preparing them for adult life. Even now we possess a wonderful body of scientific knowledge to help us nurture our genetic gifts.