Kindness Vs. Cruelty: Helping Kids Hear The Better Angels Of Their Nature

Laurent Hrybyk for NPR

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Are humans born kind?

We both assumed, as parents of young children, that kindness is just something our kids would pick up by osmosis, because we love them. It’s a common assumption.

“We often just expect people to be kind without talking about it,” says Jennifer Kotler, vice president of research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop. “We think, ‘Oh, you’re a good kid. You’re gonna be kind.’ ”

Now, that’s not entirely wrong. Humans are certainly born with a capacity to be kind — even leaning toward kindness in many situations.

We have neurons in our brains, called mirror neurons, and they respond in the same way when we experience pain, say by being pricked with a needle, as they do when we see someone else experience the same thing.

We also see signs of what is called empathic distress even in babies, says Thomas Lickona, a psychologist and author of How to Raise Kind Kids.

“Soon after birth, children will be more likely to cry as a result of hearing another child cry than in response to any other sort of noise,” says Lickona.

But kindness is about more than sensing someone else’s pain. It’s also about wanting to do something about it — and then actually being helpful. Lickona says kids show an early preference for helping, too.

In one study, when toddlers observed an adult appear to accidentally drop something, nearly every one of them responded by helping, usually within seconds, Lickona says. “And they did this without any request from the adult and without even being thanked by the adult. And it didn’t matter whether or not the parent was in the room.”

In fact, this preference for helping shows up even earlier. Kiley Hamlin is an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and she has used puppets to test this preference in babies.

Hamlin had infants watch as a puppet looked longingly up a hill it wanted to climb. When the puppet tried, though, one of two things happened: Either a helper puppet gave the climber a boost up the hill or, once at the top, the climber puppet got bumped back down by a hinderer puppet. Hamlin then put the helper and hinderer in front of the babies and waited to see which one they preferred.

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