How to raise a hero
In a playroom in a Cambridge, Mass., elementary school, a young woman sits and plays with two kindergartners. The woman, a research assistant for psychologist Ervin Staub, gets up, tells the kids she’s leaving them alone for a while, and closes the door behind her. The kids hear a crash, and then a child’s cry, from the playroom they’ve been told is next door.
What happens next fuels both hope and despair in anyone concerned about how to raise kids who are at least helpful if not heroic. About half of the time at least one of the 5-year-olds runs next door to help. And as kids mature, they become even more helpful. Fully 90 percent of second graders run next door. But then it gets distressing. Only 40 percent of fourth graders run to help. And just 30 percent of sixth graders try to help. The older kids explain they were afraid the adult would be angry if they left the room.
Staub, one of the nation’s pre-eminent researchers into altruism, believes his experiment shows that empathy, altruism, and caring, some of the basic building blocks of heroism, naturally develop in most children. But then, Staub says, society and parents often quash it by enforcing simplistic rules about obedience and failing to encourage kids to keep helping. There is cause for hope, however. Staub’s experiments and research into real-life heroes reveal seven techniques to strengthen the inner hero in just about any youngster:
Start with small, safe steps. Staub says many parents discourage heroic behavior in kids because of justifiable safety concerns. But there are plenty of safe ways to practice heroism, he says. In research on schoolyard bullying, he has found that even small nonviolent gestures can help stop childhood victimization. Parents and teachers can, for example, encourage kids to be a “positive bystander.” A child who sees another kid being picked on can turn to another bystander and try to create an ally by saying, “He shouldn’t do that,” Staub says. Or simply being warm and affectionate toward the victim can help turn others against the bully. Some of Staub’s other experiments show that kids who try such small-scale heroism go on to bigger heroic actions. “They learn by doing,” he says.
Label them “good.” Experiments by Joan Grusec, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, found that children helped more after they were given complimentary labels, rather than simple praise. Instead of just saying, “That’s a good thing to do” when a child shares toys, she suggests adding something like: “You’re the kind of person who likes to help people.” Her research indicates such positive labels help a child develop a self-image as a helper and thus lead to more voluntary helping. Labeling cuts both ways, however, Grusec warns. If the parents give a negative label when the child misbehaves, saying something like “You’re selfish,” then the child will likely live down to that identity.
Train. In a study of people who intervened to stop a crime in the mid-1970s, Gilbert Geis, then a sociologist at the University of California-Irvine, found that real-life heroes, on average, had more physical strength and some kind of specialized training. Bystanders oftentimes don’t take action because they correctly believe they don’t have the skills needed to help. Heroes rushed in because they had trained in martial arts, CPR, swimming, or other related activities.
Make them responsible. Staub believes that giving kids responsibility for animals or other children makes them more caring adults. Even small increases in responsibility greatly increase heroic action. In one experiment, Staub had the departing graduate student identify one child in the group and say, “I will leave you in charge, ok?” before leaving. That simple statement greatly increased the likelihood that a child would go to the rescue after hearing a crash next door.
Set an example, and explain it. Setting a good example is important, says Arizona State University altruism researcher Nancy Eisenberg. But her experiments showed that kids were much more likely to copy altruistic behavior if the adult also explained his or her actions. A father, thus, might help a neighbor’s kid and then explain to his own child that he’s doing it because “people are happy when you help them,” she says.
Don’t pay. Eisenberg also found that kids who were rewarded for good behavior with stickers or other goodies were less likely to help later on. Researchers theorize that such a reward makes kids think they should be paid for being altruistic and thus lose interest in helping for any other reason.
Don’t swat. Resist the temptation to use a tap on the behind or the all-purpose reason “Because I said so.” Marvin Berkowitz, a child psychologist and altruism researcher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says studies indicate kids’ altruism may be strengthened when parents keep physical punishment to a minimum, explain discipline, and point out the consequences of kids’ actions. When a child is, say, throwing sand at another, “You can yell, ‘Cut that out! I’m really angry with you!’ ” Berkowitz says. But then parents should explain why: “You’ve made the other boy cry. How do you think sand in his eyesmakes him feel? Sad!”.
If this all seems too complicated, Samuel Oliner, one of the foremost researchers on heroism, says you can boil it all down to one simple word: love. Children raised with love are more likely to help their fellow human beings in time of need, he says. Simple, yes. But not easy. Autor: Kim Clark