The Impact Of Parenting On Prosocial Behavior


Ever wondered ‘Why we react in a certain way to a particular stimuli?’ and ‘Why some people are more prone to helping one another and some not?’. A Classic Greek philosopher, Plato states that “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge”. Selfishness, often associated with negativity, although many a times the question ‘Why do some people turn out to be selfless while some selfish?’ arises. It’s completely acceptable to be described as either, after all its human behavior, which, in essence has a mind of its own. I strongly feel that the exposure we are faced with are what molds our behavior, be it negative or positive. Parenting helps in instilling key characteristics and is a building block towards the presence or absence of prosocial behavior, it helps shape a child which internally can make or break their moral and value system, indirectly leading to prosocial behavior. These various statements and questions bring out the curiosity behind Prosocial Behavior and what’s the main trigger and what essentially establishes these types of behaviours.

The starting point for research into Prosocial Behavior was through the investigation of The Bystander Effect. Catherine “Kitty” Genovese (1964) was brutally raped and stabbed to death in front of her apartment in Queens, New York, while thirty-eight people, all from her neighborhood witnessed (from the safety of their apartments), this incident was said to have lasted for about forty minutes, out of these thirty-eight witnesses, none took any action, neither active (trying to stop the attacker) nor passive (calling the police). In addition, in 2001, a group of young right-wing skinheads chased a young Greek man in Munich, Germany. Subsequently, they caught him and brutally beat him. Again, several individuals witnessed this incident however only one man from Turkey took action, which involved him pulling the blood-stained victim aside hence saving the victims life by risking his own. These two cases give rise to questions such as “What factors influence people to provide help or not to provide help?” which ultimately boils down to “What factors impact prosocial behavior?” since prosocial behavior in colloquial terms could be described as ‘helping behavior’.

According to The Handbook of Social Psychology, C. Daniel Batson explains that prosocial behaviors refer to “a broad range of actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself – behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing and cooperation.”

The term prosocial behavior originated during the 1970s and was investigated by social scientists as the opposite for the term antisocial behavior. Prosocial behavior has been a challenge to social scientists trying to understand the motifs or reasons behind why people engage in positive behaviors such as helping others, which tend to be beneficial to others and may result in harm for oneself. For example in some cases, people are ready to accept danger or any harm in order to help other people, even though they are completely unknown. Personal benefit such as feeling good about oneself is definitely not the only reason for this behavior being expressed in an individual. Research suggests that there are individual differences in prosocial behavior which are a varied combination of heredity, socialization, and situational factors. Prosocial behavior is known to be performed for numerous reasons, which range from selfish and manipulative reasons, such as helping someone to get something in return, to moral reasons, such as driving an injured person, lying on the road, to the hospital. Prosocial behavior that is not performed for social rewards, such as social approval, but is based on genuine concern for another or moral values, is labelled as ‘Altruism’.

According to Social Psychology literature, whether there is true altruism is still a question. Psychologists argue that there is always a selfish reason underlying altruistic motives. They argue that people actually help because of the psychological merging of the self with another, the desire to elevate or improve one’s own mood or to avoid negative feelings or a negative self-evaluation. People sometimes help others to alleviate their own feelings of distress when dealing with someone else in distress or need. Nonetheless, C. Daniel Batson has provided evidence that people often assist for sympathy, and there is likely at least some selfless motivation for some types of prosocial actions.

One of the most ground-breaking questions still left unanswered is ‘Why people help others?’, particularly if it’s consequence could cost them. Three broad theoretical approaches seek to explain the origins of prosocial behavior: natural explanations (evolutionary and genetic explanations), cultural approaches (sociocultural and social learning explanations), and psychological or individual-level explanations.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that evolutionary expectations make people naturally inclined to help one another. However, they tend to help only those who would help them in passing their own genes, hence this explains why people are more prone to help people related to them rather than strangers. Similarly, people are more likely to help others with similar physical characteristics, because they are more likely to pass along similar genetic characteristics to the next generation, explaining why people are more prone to help their friends, who are like them, rather than strangers.

It can also be argued that it is not genetics or evolution but culture and learning processes that help produce prosocial individuals. Social norms and socialization are used in explaining prosocial behavior in an individual. Within a society, we all feel social pressure, for example, if someone does something for you, you feel obligated to do something for them in return. A simple example we see in our everyday lives is if a friend bought you a treat or lunch, you tend to buy them something in return, or treat them some another time. Another social norm is equality within a society, an example of this could be charity, those who are more than wealthy are indirectly expected to be more charitable hence fixing the inequity between the rich and poor. Social responsibility is one of the main social norms within a society, people feel they are obliged to care for those in need, such as children, the elderly, people with physical disabilities, and other minority groups.

Robert B. Cialdini contends that feelings of empathy produce a merging with the other and experience of that person’s emotional pain, so the person helps others to relieve his or her own emotional pain, whereas C. Daniel Batson describes the desire to help another out of emphatic concern for the other’s well-being as more genuinely altruistic.

There are various studies done throughout the years to develop an understanding on what are the causes of prosocial behavior and what factor has a larger impact. Without doubt gender, age, the biological make-up, cognitive abilities certainly affect the behavior of a person. However theories such as The Social Learning Theory and Psychosocial Development, have shown the importance of parenting style and how it impacts the development of a child and their behavior. It also suggests the strong impact negative parenting or caregiving can result in negative characteristics being developed in the child, which leads to my research question “To what extent does Parenting impact Prosocial Behavior?”

“Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modelling from others” quoted by Albert Bandura. This could suggest why and how parenting plays an important role in how a child is brought up and its effect on their resulting behavior, such prosocial behavior. Essentially if a child is reared in an environment where there is a balance of discipline, love, affection and have a strong emotional and physical support system then the child is more prone to show prosocial behavior. From the moment of an individuals birth, they are always observing the behavioral patterns of their parents or siblings, however primarily their mothers, because of this they take their mothers as their role model and start mimicking their actions and reactions to certain stimuli. Certain examples, are when their mother is seen crying, the baby will tend to reciprocate that same feeling and begins to cry. Another example could be of the baby’s natural eating habits, if a mother tends to dislike a certain type of food, the baby is also more prone to dislike that certain food.

The social learning theory

When it comes to talking about the parents’ role in the behavior of their child, the theory of social learning can come into play, by Albert Bandura (1977). The base of his theory was the process of observational learning. This type of learning among children involves them engaging in observing the behavior of people around them. This is illustrated by the Bobo doll experiment. In society in general, children are surrounded by many role models, such as parents, for example. These models provide examples of behavior to observe and as a result imitate. Children pay attention to some of these models and encode their behavior, at a later time when put in a similar scenario they imitate the observed behavior, which was stored in their memory earlier.

The psychosocial development theory

According to Erik Erikson (1959) psychosocial development has eight distinct stages. The first stage being Trust vs Mistrust, it is based on the basic virtue of hope. During this stage, the infant is not sure about the world they live in, they have no certainty, the child tends to look towards their primary caregiver for stability and consistency of care and affection. If the care being received is consistent, reliable and predictable, they will develop a sense of trust which will lead them to sustaining and creating new relationships. If insufficient care is provided then the infant will develop a sense of mistrust and will have no confidence in the world around them or in their abilities to influence events, and will show heightened insecurities and anxiety. This shows that if adequate care and affection is provided the child will be able to develop healthy social relations and have better social competence, whereas if the child is provided with a lack of affection or minimum care then it would result in anxiety and would develop a lack of trust in people around them and would result in poor social competence.

Based on these two theories, the correlation between parenting and prosocial behavior can be investigated. The importance of a role model to observe and plays a huge role in a child’s early development, especially their behavior and actions. For example, a child is prone to reacting to any stimuli the exact same way they have seen others around them react when presented with that same particular stimuli. Another important factor being explained is that the relationship between the child’s parent or caregiver can impact a child’s social development and how well they can form further relationships. In order to further examine the impact of parenting the parenting style construct theory was proposed by Diana Baumrind (1996).

The parenting style construct theory and prosocial behavior

Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist, delineated various parenting styles which can be classified along two dimensions: responsiveness (warmth) and demandingness (control). She defined parental responsiveness as “the extent to which parents intentionally foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by being attuned, supportive, and acquiescent to children’s special needs and demands” Baumrind, 1996, p.410, cited in Grolnick, 2003, p.6. Parental demandingness she referred to as “the claims parents make on children to become integrated into the family whole by their maturity demands, supervision, disciplinary efforts and willingness to confront the child who disobeys”. She proposed three different types of parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian and permissive.

Authoritative parenting style parents tend to score high in both dimensions (warmth and control). This encourages independence in their child while at the same time incorporating necessary limits on their behavior in order to maintain a good balance of discipline. This style allows for open parent-child communication in order to provide constant warmth and support for the child or children, Spera, 2005. This style of parenting also includes the parent attempting to provide valid explanations for certain rules and regulations they set in order to maintain a good balance in discipline.

Authoritarian parents tend to score poorly in the warmth dimension and high in the control dimension. They tend to apply unnecessary limits on their child’s behavior to the point where it becomes restrictive. Such parents expect unquestioned obedience and are intolerant of inappropriate behavior. Harsh, punitive measures are used to ensure compliance with rules and standards,. They also have high expectations and high maturity demands for their child, which they communicate through rules and orders hence little verbal exchange is allowed and displays of affection are rather rare.

Developmentalists have argued that this style can be subdivided into two groups, permissive-indulgent parenting (indulgent parenting) and permissive-indifferent parenting (neglectful parenting). The indulgent parent demonstrates high warmth and emotional involvement with their children but make very little demands and place few, if any, limits on their behavior, hence very low control. The neglectful parent is the opposite of the authoritative parent, being low on both dimensions of responsiveness (warmth) and demandingness (control). Like those in the indulgent category, they place very few restraints on their children and there is little monitoring of their children’s activities. However, they show very little warmth or affection as they are typically uninvolved in their children’s lives.

In addition to the two dimensions (responsiveness and demandingness), there is a third dimension: psychological control. This dimension refers to “control attempts that intrude into the psychological and emotional development of the child” Barber (1996) through use of parenting practices such as inducing guilt, withdrawal of love, or shaming. The psychological control dimension is the main difference between authoritarian and authoritative parenting. As mentioned earlier that both authoritarian and authoritative parents place high demands on their children and expect their child to behave appropriately and obey parental rules. Authoritarian parents, however, also expect their children to accept their judgements, values, and goals without any questions asked. In contrast, authoritative parents are more open to give and take with their children and make greater use of explanations. Hence authoritative parents tend to be low in psychological control when in comparison with the authoritarian parents.

Based on Diana Baumrind’s theory, different variations of research began which led to investigations on prosocial behavior and parenting with the help of supporting theories such Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory and Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development. Jan M.A.M. Janssens and Maja Dekovic (2010) examined the relations between child rearing and prosocial behavior. The sample consisted of 125 children (6-11 years of age) and both their parents. Child-rearing behavior was assessed through observations at home and interviews with parents; prosocial moral reasoning by interviews with the children, and prosocial behavior by questionnaires filled in by their teachers and classmates. The results showed that children growing up in a supportive, authoritative, and less restrictive environment behaved more prosocially and reasoned a higher level in regards to prosocial moral issues. This supports the notion that authoritative parenting has a direct positive impact on the presence of prosocial behavior in a child. Through this study it can be inferred that authoritarian parenting impacts the presence of prosocial behavior in a negative way, as this style of parenting includes a large number of restrictions and also provides support really rarely.

During childhood and adolescence, parents tend to be the main role models for their children hence parents play an important role in either fostering or hindering the process of values internalization. Grolnick et al., (1997) outlined three dimensions of parenting that seem to facilitate internalization of values, which in turn leads to an increase in prosocial behavior. The three dimensions being: parental involvement, autonomy support and structure. These three dimensions are similar to the dimensions of parenting as mentioned earlier. Since no studies have fully examined the role of these three facilitative parenting dimensions of involvement, structure and autonomy support in internalizing morals in adolescence there is a lack of empirical evidence, which in turn led Hardy et al., (2010) to explore relations between parenting dimensions and internalization of moral values in adolescence. They found that when adolescents observe their parents responding fairly and graciously to prosocial behaviors, they are more likely to be open to adopting the prosocial values their parents are following and in turn imitate the prosocial behavior as Bandura (1977) explained through the Social Learning Theory. To further investigate Grolnick, (2003) and Baumrind, (1971) parenting dimensions and its impact on prosocial behavior in adolescents, McGrath et al., (2003) examined the relationships with parents and peers and prosocial behavior among children aged 6-10 years. The children’s prosocial behavior was positively correlated with parental responsiveness and nurturance and negativity associated with the deprivation of rewards. Prosocial behavior was positively related to the amount of time spent in childcare before kindergarten. Hence results suggest that both parents and peers play a role in socializing prosocial behavior in children.

To further investigate the relations among dimensions of parenting styles, sympathy, prosocial moral reasoning, and prosocial behaviors, longitudinal studies were carried out by Carlo et al., (2010). As established in Developmental Psychology, parents are clearly important in the role they play as fostering prosocial behaviors in adolescents, however longitudinal studies are varied hence the statement can’t be fully established. Carlo et al., (2010) over course of three successive years, examined 372 boys and 358 girls (mean age: 10.84 years) all from middle class community in Spain. Measures of fathers’ and mothers’ warmth and strict control, sympathy, prosocial moral reasoning, and self- and peer- reported prosocial behaviors. Results showed that parental warmth, sympathy, and prosocial moral reasoning were predictive of prosocial behaviors. To further support that maternal support is extremely important in shaping prosocial behaviors Padilla-Walker and Nelson (2010) found that high maternal attachment (authoritative parenting) was related to prosocial behavior for boys lower on fear, demonstrating that for fearless boys, the quality of the relationship with mothers may be particularly important. Liu, Chen, Zheng, Chen, and Wang, (2009) also found that mothers’ encouragement of connectedness (behaviors supporting emotional closeness and proximity, or the warmth dimension linked to Baumrind’s theory) predicted later helping and sharing for children who displayed high initial connectedness but for children who were low in connectedness.

An important aspect in regards to parenting style and prosocial behavior is parental inductions, which, refers to “the parents ability to provide valid explanations or reasons for requiring the child to either improve or alter their behavior and to also consider the affect it may have on another’s emotional or mental state.” Parental inductions have been positively associated with prosocial behavior in adolescents in Mexican American and European American families, this was found by psychologists Carlo, Knight et al., (2011) and Farrant, Devine, Maybery, and Fletcher, (2012). A child seems to be more compliant and submissive to rules or regulations set by parents when there is a valid explanation behind it. A mutual understanding between the child and parent allows the child to engage in learning and helps them to openly accept the actions or behavior the parent is trying to influence them through the use of rules and explanations for each.

Alternative theories for prosocial behavior

Socialization research, investigating the relationship between parenting and prosocial behavior, is relatively hard to interpret because a direct cause and effect relationship can’t be established. Hence prosocial behavior can’t solely be impacted by the child’s social environment such as parenting style and the type of interaction between one another. On the other hand, genetic research can provide evidence for the investigation of the effect of genes on prosocial behavior. Hence other factors such as genetic and personality differences, age and culture can play a role in impacting prosocial behavior in a child.


Researchers have isolated specific genes that may be related to prosocial behavior, which in turn influences individual differences. Evidence compiled by Israel S, Hasenfratz L, Knafo-Noam A. suggests a role for genes in the regulation of the activity of brain molecules which are involved in transferring information such neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Some research has also linked the presence of prosocial behavior in children to be linked with variations in the OCTR and AVPR1a genes. Lisabeth Fisher DiLalla, Kit K. Elam, Andrew Smolen, (2009) found that differences in the dopamine receptor D4 gene (DRD4) are related to twins’ sharing with one another. However, DRD4 had no direct connection between sharing, though a gene-environment interaction was identified, showing that carriers of a certain variant of DRD4 had connotations with stronger associations between prosocial behavior and their attachment security or the parenting they received. To further investigate the genetic and environmental contributions to prosocial behavior, Hur, Yoon-Mi, and J Philippe Rushton, (2007) examined mothers’ ratings of prosocial behavior in 514 pairs of 2-9 year old South Korean monozygotic and dizygotic twins. It was concluded that genetic and environmental influences on prosocial behavior in young South Koreans are mostly similar to those in western samples.

Historical Roots

In discussion of the historical roots of prosocial behavior, evidence that voluntary actions that benefit others are a foundation of human and animal behavior. In the 1970’s, biologist Edward O. Wilson began studying social behaviors of animals and humans. He found that helping, and, even rescuing behaviors are innate in primates, helper bees, ants, wild fogs, and other species. Hence, developmental and social psychologists hold the animal world as proof for prosocial behavior being a preprogrammed biological function of humanity rather than solely nurtured or learned actions.

Often, one of the main reasons behind prosocial behavior are associated with religion. For example, majority of the primary monotheistic traditions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, teach that helping the needy is a religious obligation. The emphasis on giving and helping, which is present in majority of the religions is one of the reasons why prosocial behavior is considered as a social norm and is imperative in majority of cultures.

A huge interest in prosocial behavior began because of the finding that this positive behavior could be a key to harmonious interpersonal and group relations, especially during the 1960’s. The Civil Rights movement and murder of Genovese captivated the nation’s attention, raised a concern in regards to why people do or do not engage in prosocial behavior, which in turn compelled social psychologists to study the psychological motivations that promote helping and sharing.


The style of parenting involved in the roots of prosocial behavior in a child stems from the explanation that a positive influence brings out or encourages prosocial behavior whereas negative influences diminish prosocial moral values gradually. Through active role models and the concepts of learning in humans, prosocial behavior is seen in an individual. However, alternate theories of instilling prosocial behavior argue that parenting alone cannot be directly associated with the presence of prosocial behavior, as parenting can be said to be dependent upon social interactions. Therefore, in order to determine: To what extent does parenting impact prosocial behavior, the social learning theory, psychosocial development theory, the parenting style construct theory were examined.

01 February 2021
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