FAMILY matters

Nurturing kids' natural generosity

After a steady stream of goblins and Gagas, my Halloween stash of chocolate candy was running low.

Was it time to impose the one-ghoul-one-treat rule?

As if to rescue me from my miserly miscalculations, a 3-year-old pirate shyly approached.

He hesitated until his mother gave him a gentle prompt.

"Twick o' tweet!" he announced proudly.

He then reached into his plastic pumpkin, pulled out a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup (my favorite) and handed it to me.

I thanked the boy, who told me his name was Sam, and gave him a treat from my own supply. Then I complimented his mother on her parenting skills and wished them a happy Halloween.

Was I right to connect the young pirate's generosity with his upbringing? Or was his action just instinctual?

And should I have reinforced his selflessness by giving him two Twix bars in exchange for his one peanut butter cup?

Meeting young Sam got me thinking about the moral development of children and looking at the research that's been done on this fascinating subject.

Back in the middle of the last century, venerated psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg made a career of posing hypothetical moral dilemmas to folks of various ages and listening carefully to the reasons behind their solutions to the problems. (Sample question: Is it okay to break the law to steal medicine you need but can't afford?)

Kohlberg proposed a theory that there are six stages of moral development. The first stage is deciding whether an action will cause us pain or pleasure. As we mature, we get to higher reasoning, learning to respect the rule of law and order, and ultimately to acting in accord with an overruling social contract (we don't all get that far — this would be selflessness on the level of Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).

The implication of this theory is that youngsters the age of my young pirate friend Sam aren't far enough along in their development to make decisions based on anything beyond their own pleasure or pain.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, new scientific techniques allowed researchers to systematically observe toddlers communicate consistent preferences for people and animated objects that were kind and helpful to those in need. It didn't matter whether the child himself was the recipient of kindness, or whether a total stranger was benefiting.

Such work opened minds to the fact that even the youngest among us are drawn to acts of kindness, wherever they are directed.

At the same time, witness how early in childhood kids start associating with individuals who look, speak, dress, eat and, ultimately, think like themselves. They likely learn this, researchers say, by observing family and friends.

This gravitation toward the self and the familiar seems the very antithesis of the younger child's concern for the feelings of strangers. In time, the theory goes, we hopefully learn to integrate these impulses and even get to Kohlberg's higher stages of moral development.

In the end, we are shaped by biology, what we experience, whom we learn from, and how much we develop the courage to integrate all that life presents and then choose what to believe in and how much to care about others.

In other words, Sam's mom gets some of the credit. And so does Sam.

As for what we adults can do to encourage the youngest humanitarians, I decided it was okay to give my pirate friend just one piece of candy. Doubling up, I told myself, might have sent a message that he should expect to profit in return for his kindness.

On second thought, what's so bad about that? Sam, come back!

Peter A. Gorski, M.D., M.P.A., is the director of research and innovation at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County and professor of pediatrics, public health and psychiatry at the University of South Florida.

Nurturing kids' natural generosity 11/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 5:30am]

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