Spending Time With Kids Boosts Generosity and Compassion, Study Says

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • A series of eight experiments found that thinking about children made adults more likely to demonstrate compassionate values.
  • In a field study, researchers also found that adults were more likely to make a charitable donation on a busy street when children were present. 
  • Experts say that engaging in prosocial activities with children may offer powerful benefits to our mental health amid the pandemic.

Being around caring grown-ups offers a number of psychological benefits for kids. Now new research has found evidence that adults who spend time with children may also experience some positive emotional changes that benefit not only the individual but potentially society at large.

The study, which was published last month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, involved a series of experiments with more than 2,000 adults, as well as a field study. The results showed that adults who thought about children became more compassionate and helpful. The presence of kids also made adults more likely to make charitable donations.

The Study

In an effort to understand how the presence of children could affect compassionate motivation and behavior in adults, a group of researchers from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands recruited 2,054 adults to participate in a total of eight experiments. 

The group of participants skewed heavily female with an average age between 21 and 38 years old, depending on the experiment. Most participants were not parents.

The experiments, which were conducted online and in laboratories, assigned participants to either describe a child’s appearance and personality, an adult, a mundane event, or nothing at all. The researchers then used surveys to determine participants’ levels of prosocial values and aspirations, such as social justice, helpfulness, forgiveness, equality, and honesty.

The results showed that people who thought about children had higher prosocial values compared with those who described adults, mundane situations, or nothing before the survey.

Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

This phenomenon of adults generally showing kindness, nurturance, and a soft spot for children is often observed in community and social settings.

— Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

The researchers then used a field study to see if similar results would play out in a real-world scenario that involved asking adults for a donation to a blood cancer charity. The study was conducted in a U.K. city on a busy shopping street near several schools for 12 days in March 2019. 

The data was collected between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.—around the time when kids were dismissed from school. Researchers tallied the number of children and adults on the street in 2-minute intervals, and recorded the weather, the donor’s gender, and whether the donor was with a child. 

The results showed that adults were more likely to make a donation when more children were on the street. The findings were consistent even when controlling for gender, the weather, time of day, or whether the donor was accompanying a child.

“From personal and professional experience and perspective as a mom and psychologist, these results are not surprising. This phenomenon of adults generally showing kindness, nurturance, and a soft spot for children is often observed in community and social settings,” says Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Teladoc, which provides virtual healthcare. 

“The suggestion is that children may hold the key to influencing more positive decisions that adults make that can benefit society as a whole,” she adds.

Why Adults Feel More Compassionate Around Children

There are many potential reasons why children may inspire adults to be more compassionate and generous. One explanation might be a subconscious reminder of the need to protect kids and help them thrive in order for the human species to survive for future generations.

Amanda Gummer, PhD

We are programmed to ensure the survival and even flourishing of the human race, and children are the future, so it’s a natural instinct for adults to protect children.

— Amanda Gummer, PhD

“We are programmed to ensure the survival and even flourishing of the human race, and children are the future, so it’s a natural instinct for adults to protect children. That instinct promotes feelings and acts of kindness and altruism,” says Amanda Gummer, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in child development, play, and parenting, and founder of the Good Play Guide

The boost in prosocial values may also be rooted in an adult’s desire to serve as a positive example for youngsters, adds Dr. Dudley.

“Children offer adults the opportunity to be role models. Shortcomings adults may perceive within themselves are often viewed as less negative to children, and children can be more forgiving and accepting of adults’ behaviors and show gratitude and happiness with how adults interact with them and the environment,” she says.

Dudley continues, “This level of unconditional positive regard from children increases adults’ own sense of accomplishment, effectiveness, and importantly, their self-worth.”

The effect may also be due to children triggering caretaking motivations and empathy in adults, according to the study. The authors also note that children may not be the only group that spurs an increase in compassion and generosity. Other groups seen as “deserving of help,” such as older adults and victims (like people who survived a natural disaster), may also inspire similar prosocial behavior, but more research is needed.

Applying the Findings to the Pandemic

While the experiments in this study were conducted a couple of years ago, the findings may be of particular importance during the context of the pandemic. 

“In my work as a psychologist at Teladoc treating patients during the pandemic, I’ve witnessed the unexpected strain and emotional toll that the pandemic has placed on families,” says Dr. Dudley. “The research points to a bigger picture of how taking care of one’s mental health and emotional well-being can heavily involve prioritization of family needs, including the importance of children.”

She says that focusing on opportunities to spend more time with your family—particularly your children and other youngsters you’re related to—may help offset some feelings of anxiety and worry that have come from the pandemic.

“Parents can increase their feelings of compassion, generosity, and happiness by engaging more with their children, having fun with them, and focusing on role modeling prosocial behaviors for children at a time when they are in their presence more often,” she says.

“As a parent myself, I’ve found it personally fulfilling to spend more quality time with my own preteen son—and have become more creative in coming up with prosocial activities that we can do together to promote his emotional well-being,” says Dr. Dudley.

What This Means For You

How compassionate and generous you are may be directly tied to how often you think about or spend time around children, according to a new study. That finding may change the way people think about the role of children in building a more compassionate society.

Experts say this research comes at a particularly important time, given the effects of the pandemic. While many people are experiencing increased stressors, like health concerns and financial issues, focusing on opportunities to spend more time with the children in your family may help offset some of those anxieties. Multiple generations may reap emotional benefits by engaging in prosocial activities, such as volunteering for a non-profit, together.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
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  1. Wolf LJ, Thorne SR, Iosifyan M, et al. The salience of children increases adult prosocial valuesSoc Psychol Personal Sci. Published online April 16, 2021. doi:10.1177/194855062110076053

By Joni Sweet
Joni Sweet is an experienced writer who specializes in health, wellness, travel, and finance.